(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Sheltering Sky, arguably Bowles’s best work, has as its setting his terrible yet hauntingly lovely depiction of the Sahara Desert. The chief protagonist could be said to be like the desert itself: an aloof, indomitable, compelling, disorienting, killer landscape—a killer waiting for new victims. All is mystery, despite the clarifying sunlight. A kind of anarchy reigns in the chaotic towns on the desert’s periphery, and the farther one travels from coastal cities, the more anarchic and mysterious things become for Bowles’s dissolute, bored characters.

Into this strange part of the world Bowles introduces his Americans, Port and Katherine (Kit) Moresby, a young husband and wife from New York, wandering aimlessly, supported by considerable funds. Port, whom Kit likes to insist is a writer, actually is no such thing: He really does nothing with his life.

Cynical and jaundiced by fruitless years spent in the United States, Port begins his African sojourn at the Café d’Eckmühl-Noiseux in a town somewhere close to the coast of Morocco.

Kit, his intelligent, attractive wife, is not quite as dissatisfied with life as is he, for she has lingering expectations of some kind of life illumination to come from this exile of theirs. She is alert to the people she encounters; her lively interest in her surroundings counters her husband’s boredom, yet she also struggles to find meaning in her life and sometimes falls into a bored silence.

A fellow American simply called Tunner meets the Moresbys, then attempts to befriend them. He turns traitor to his new “friend,” Port, when he seduces Kit on a train ride to the interior. Like Port and Kit, Tunner is a drifter drawn to North Africa by restless yearnings not quite identifiable. Also entering the picture are the Lyles, a bizarre couple supposedly composed of a mother and her spineless son who, it is found out, sleep together (whether they are incestuous is not stated). The boy, Eric, is a liar, a cheat, and a thief, and his mother is a loud-mouthed, obscene, overly aggressive woman, proud of herself to the...

(The entire section is 865 words.)

The Sheltering Sky Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Port Moresby wakes up unable to remember his dream. Later he sits with his wife, Kit Moresby, and their traveling companion, Tunner. They are three New Yorkers who find that North Africa is one of the few places to which they can get boat passage since the end of the war.

Port explains the difference between tourists and travelers. He is a traveler, a person who belongs to no place, who is not ruled by time, and who questions his own civilization. His wife, Kit, does not share Port’s enthusiasm for maps and remote locations but is willing to accompany him.

Port then recalls his dream: He is on a speeding train, going ever faster. He is offered the chance to live his life over again, but he refuses. Kit leaves the table crying. Back at the hotel, Kit explains that the dream was too private to tell in front of Tunner, but Port feels that she is being too serious. He leaves on a walk.

He feels nervous, but he walks until the street lights are gone, and an Arab man asks what he wants. Port is offered a prostitute. The man leads him to a cliff and points to a tent in the valley. Port has sex with a beautiful young girl there, fantasizing that Kit looks on. When the girl attempts to steal his wallet, he pushes her and bolts from the tent. Several men pursue him.

That morning Kit reflects on her vanishing relationship with Port. Although she thinks Tunner is idiotic, she considers using him as an emotional tool that might force Port back to her. Tunner comes to wake her up. Then she notices that Port’s bed is still made. Port arrives and is angry to find Tunner with Kit. She is angry at being accused. Kit and Tunner leave. In the hotel bar, Port meets Eric Lyle, a revolting character, and Eric’s scolding mother. She is a travel writer, and they are touring Africa. Kit returns; she and Port argue briefly.

The argument over Port’s whereabouts continues in the morning. Then Eric invites them to ride in his motorcar to avoid the long train ride to Boussif. Kit refuses to travel with the Lyles or to leave Tunner behind. She and Tunner will take the train. That evening, Tunner woos Kit over champagne.

Tunner and Kit get drunk in the compartment, riding toward Boussif. Kit leaves the train momentarily and boards a fourth-class carriage. She is frightened and soaked by rain when she makes it back. She misses having Port to lean on. Tunner takes this opportunity to seduce her. By lunchtime the three are reunited at a hotel in Boussif.

Kit and Port, somewhat reconciled, ride rented bikes out toward a cliff. They are finally relaxed and happy together. They climb and find themselves above the desert. Kit reflects sadly that although alike in feelings, they are hopelessly opposed in their aims. Port, gazing at the sky, says that he has the strange sensation that it is a solid thing protecting them from what lay behind. Kit shudders and begs him not to talk about it.

Port insists that they both are barely hanging on to life. Kit says that neither of them ever got into life. Kit feels guilty about Tunner, and she thinks that Port knows. After dinner, Port rents a bicycle and rides alone...

(The entire section is 1294 words.)