The Role of Physical Setting to Convey Isabelle Eberhardt’s Mental and Emotional State

Isabelle Eberhardt was known as a prominent symbol of eccentricity and unorthodox behavior, a person with a complex and volatile character that was reflected through her natural surroundings depicted in The Nomad (1987, 2003). In addition to a colorful personality, Isabelle Eberhardt was a woman of great observation and an ability to describe such observations in minute detail throughout her four journals. Isabelle’s eccentric qualities were present even when describing her natural surroundings, incorporating a unique and self-expressive tone while recounting the sand dunes and lush greenery, the pink skies and violent storms that accompanied Isabelle throughout her travels. Although recording Isabelle’s impressions of her natural surroundings served to improve her proficiency as a writer, these descriptions may have also acted as a subconscious outlet for her turmoil of thoughts and emotions. Isabelle Eberhardt incorporates meticulous descriptions of her physical surroundings, in particular her portrayal of the Sahara desert, throughout her four journals, providing insight into her erratic nature and general mental and emotional state at the time of her evocations.

Isabelle Eberhardt uses terms to describe duration and frequency in order to signify the interminable qualities of the natural world, as well as the continuity of nature and even civilization in the face of death and everyday trivial obstacles. “Sand pour down the dunes in a constant stream” … “took on the usual lavish colours of its nightly apotheosis” … “swallowed up by the eternal night” … “this land’s infinite sky” (Eberhardt, 68). The Nomad uses repetitive descriptions of an unchanging setting to indicate her thoughts on the futility and insignificance of life, as well as prompting an exploration of death. In the midst of the unending disposition of nature, Isabelle is attempting to achieve self discovery and purpose. Isabelle claims to not fear death itself, but fear dying without purpose. “I am not afraid of death, but would not want to die in some obscure or pointless way” (Eberhardt, 101). Surrounded by nature, where most things considered critical in an urban area are instead insignificant and superficial, Isabelle may find her calling to life and avoid a pointless death.

While writing her journals, Isabelle spends a significant portion of her time in the Sahara desert, a great, empty expanse of land devoid of much human activity. This setting depicts the immense loneliness and isolation Isabelle had felt throughout a majority of her lifetime. Although loneliness is often seen as unwanted and generally disagreeable, Isabelle describes the emotion with a sort of fondness and familiarity, similar to her approach to the Sahara desert. Isabelle seeks the desert as she seeks to remain in a state of isolation, far from the pain and superficiality that comes with human interaction. The isolation and detachment of the Sahara also depict Isabelle’s feeling of not belonging, a stranger in all lands and at home in none.

The desert is often considered a harsh and unforgiving environment, and may act as a barrier that must be crossed in order to arrive at a certain ‘promised land’. “I must fashion a soul for myself out there, an awareness, an intelligence and a will” (Eberhardt, 41). Similarly to the symbolic use of the desert, Isabelle must overcome her internal barriers in order to achieve the development of character she so desires. Through the isolation and destitution that comes with inhabiting a desert, Isabelle hopes to improve herself as a person and writer and reach the ‘promised land’ of accomplishment and purpose.

The desert is sometimes associated with the notion of purification and spiritual awareness, where some are said to have achieved divinity. By living in the Sahara Isabelle Eberhardt wishes to devote herself to a sort of asceticism, where her soul may ‘improve’ and she can avoid the mundane obstacles that impede her life and spiritual, emotional, and mental progress. The spirituality associated with the desert may assist Isabelle with her connection to the Islamic faith that may guide her towards accepting herself and the circumstances of her life.

Isabelle’s descriptions of her environment serve to point out the unimportance of material belonging and satisfaction. The beauty of nature is accentuated when in a state of relative poverty, where no material possession may distract from the true and unending allure of nature. “Self satisfaction because of some material accomplishment will never be for me” (Eberhardt, 38). Isabelle scorns the value that has been given to material power, expressing her contempt through an immense appreciation for the desirability and wealth given by nature.

As made obvious by her diaries, Isabelle feels with intense emotions and is susceptible to falling in love with her surroundings.Isabelle expresses her impressions of nature with intensity and a sort of sensuality. By using words such as ‘fever’ and ‘ablaze’, Isabelle indicates a sort of fiery passion for the nature around her. Isabelle is drawn to North Africa almost as if to a lover. She falls in love with her surroundings like she fell in love with Slimene, and, to an extent, her new identity. Isabelle’s life in North Africa holds little memory of her past, and demands little thought for her future, enabling Isabelle to appreciate the land as she appreciates the present.“I must learn to live in the present moment and not, as I have so far done, only in the future, which is a natural source of pain” (Eberhardt, 48). Where the past was filled with death and grief and the future is uncertain, Isabelle is learning to enjoy the present and draw pleasure from any appearance of beauty, even that of nature.

“As long as the aspects of nature all around us correspond to our state of mind, we think we see a special beauty there, but from the moment our transient feelings change, everything evaporates and disappears” (Eberhardt, 91). Following an assassination attempt, Isabelle admits to manipulating her observation of her surroundings according to her mood and circumstance. Isabelle was able to identify the beauty in nature when she saw beauty in herself and those around her. When her immediate beauty and happiness is taken from her, so does the beauty from her surroundings cease to exist. Isabelle’s perception of her environment is so dependent on her internal state that every impression she has of her natural surroundings is, in fact, an impression of herself.

Isabelle Eberhardt’s natural surroundings not only act as the setting for her emotional and mental enrichment but reflect her views and disposition. The various descriptions of setting portrayed throughout The Nomad depict Isabelle’s sense of a purpose, loneliness, struggle against barriers, spiritual enlightenment, rejection of material satisfaction, sensuality, and general perception. Although Isabelle puts into words many of her thoughts and emotions, the reader’s understanding of her character is further illuminated through the implications made by the extensive illustrations of Isabelle’s natural surroundings. Although setting and natural surroundings may initially appear to act as simply backdrops upon which characters undertake various ventures; after a closer look these settings also serve to reflect and develop the characters themselves.