Defining Self Through Measurements of Time in The Sheltering Sky
Often discussions of self or identity center on exterior factors—societal views of issues such as gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and culture. However, a primary part of the definition of self comes through the measurement of time and the role it plays in the understanding of self. Significantly, this understanding is formed by the impressions the mind has stored as well as the mind’s ability and willingness to reflect upon those impressions.
The significance of time as a function of identity is underscored in Paul Bowles’s short fiction The Sheltering Sky, a story centering on a married couple and their friend who are traveling in Africa in the early part of the 20th century. From the beginning, the reader senses that Port and his wife Kit have invited Tunner, the third traveler, along to serve as a kind of buffer—an agent meant to delay the examination of their marriage and their success and/or failure in the roles as husband and wife.
Ultimately, however, time itself forces the couple to acknowledge the significance each has for the other and the consequences of failing to properly acknowledge the constraints of time. The first hint of the significance that time has to one’s sense of self as well as of the confused state of Port and Kit’s marriage comes with the opening scene as Port surfaces from a dream in a disoriented condition. As he struggles to awaken from his state of sleep, Port also struggles to emerge from a state of “non-being,” glancing at his watch only to become confused by his premature attempt to register time (5).
This attempt to register the time is telling as a major part of Port’s sense of self is defined by his willingness to suspend time, agreeing to move with the flow of whichever part of the earth he is visiting and by this, defining himself as a traveler rather than a tourist (6). Port’s act of spite, riding with the Lyles to Boussif instead of taking the train with Kit and Tunner, unintentionally hastens his journey, thus causing him to commit an uncharacteristic act—tourists hurry while travelers move slowly.
The result of Port acting out of character is the loss of his sense of self, losing his identity both figuratively when Tunner assumes the role of companion and sexual partner to Kit and literally when his passport is stolen. Despite the fact that Port’s traveling with the Lyles means he temporarily abandons Kit to Tunner, Port does recognize the importance that his role as Kit’s husband plays to his overall well-being.
Significantly, one of the first things that Port registers when he is emerging from his dream at the beginning of the story is the sound of his wife’s steps in the next room, a rhythmic sound that “comfort[s] him, since he had reached another level of consciousness where the mere certitude of being alive was not sufficient” (5). After they travel separately, and at separate rates, to Boussif, Port attempts to regain the same level of comfort, the same rhythm in his relationship with Kit, by going for a bicycle ride at dusk.
However, although they ride in tandem and, at one point walk hand in hand up to the top of a ridge, the focal point of the scene becomes Kit’s awareness of the way she will eventually fail to give what her husband needs from her as well as the way she feels out of step with him. As they sit on a rock, linked arm in arm, “facing the vastness below” (75), Kit realizes that the moments such as this are significant to Port, the vast space, for him, representing infinity, time without end and that he held hope that she would feel the same sense of significance.
She also realizes that her presence during such moments heightens Port’s enjoyment despite the fact that she has a different interpretation of the “vastness below. ” Port’s enjoyment of the vast space mirrors his refusal to be defined as part of humanity, choosing to view himself, instead, as being “only [his] own poor hopelessly isolated self” (71), refusing to “carry a passport to existence” (72) to justify his existence.
Conversely, Kit defines herself by the very fact that she is part of humanity and in the same moments of “solitude and proximity to infinite things” that Port finds happiness, she finds a “silence and emptiness” that “terrifie[s] her” (75) as it fails to support her assertion that “other people rule [her] life” (31). Kit sadly acknowledges that she and Port are destined to have “diametrically opposed” aims in life, signifying that despite the moments that they spend hand in hand or riding in tandem, they would remain out of rhythm (75).
While Port views himself as operating outside the rhythms of humanity despite his acknowledged need for Kit, Kit’s view of herself as being “diametrically opposed,” indicates that she must keep pace with humankind, she needs and, therefore, must remain with people. Kit’s refusal to ride separately with Port and the Lyles emphasizes that her place is with civilization even when that civilization does not meet her idea of what is civilized, as evidenced when she becomes part of the crowd when she enters the fourth-class car of the train in an effort to separate herself from Tunner.
This contact that binds her to the populace serves as an omen to Kit’s fate, foreshadowing the end of the novel when it is indicated that she has chosen to return to become treated as property in the Arab culture rather than risk a second failure as a mate in Western culture. In large part, Kit’s sense of failure as a mate comes through her inability to control time as she is unable to stave off the fate indicated by evil omens which, by definition offer a hint of ill events at a time in the future and, thus, an opportunity to avoid or at least prepare for such events.
Most tellingly, when Kit is tending Port after he has fallen ill, she listens to the combination of Port’s sobs and the sound of the wind under the door, a “singular animal-like sound” (161), hearing them as “two impersonal, natural sounds” (162). Kit’s designation of both sounds as “impersonal” indicates that while her view of humanity may still be that it includes all humans, she recognizes that Port is becoming his definition as well, moving outside of humanity, that he is moving towards not existing.
Significantly, when Port does cease to exist, Kit is not present—she has met up with Tunner; thus, Kit’s failure of Port is that she is not by his side at his final moment, rather she is with his ostensible replacement, Tunner, who is also returning Port’s stolen passport. While Kit’s ill-timed walk causes her to be absent from Port’s side when he dies, she successfully avoids dishonoring him by allowing herself to become controlled by Tunner, a sham representation of Port.
Contrary to the first book in which Port awakens in a disoriented state, the last book opens with Kit awakening fully cognizant of her decision to lose herself in the Sahara desert, and by doing so removing herself from the confines of time. The further she is taken into the desert by the two Arab men, the fewer references to time, and gradually Kit loses her identity, eventually being dressed as a man so she may be kept and controlled by Belqassim.
After she escapes from Belqassim, Kit briefly returns to Western culture only to realize that she will be forced to examine the identity she had sought to shed, and that while she can avoid reflecting upon the stored impressions of her mind in the time-suspended Sahara, those who know her will require that she open her eyes and “look! ” (244) and thus acknowledge the events of the past. In the end, the reader is left with the impression that Kit has chosen to return to the Arab culture, a world where she has no choice but to let other people rule her.
Time plays an integral role in the understanding of self in The Sheltering Sky. Bowles creates a troubled marriage between a person who wants to operate outside the constraints of time and a person who needs those constraints, creating a marriage between a person who yearns to operate outside of humanity and one who must be bound to it. Ultimately, such a marriage cannot succeed nor can such characters meet any fate other than one of tragedy.