Blindness (novel)

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Blindness
Book cover of Ensaio sobre a Cegueira.jpg
1st edition Cover (Portuguese)
Author José Saramago
Original title Ensaio sobre a cegueira
Translator Giovanni Pontiero
Country Portugal
Language Portuguese
Genre Novel
Publisher Caminho
Publication date
1995
Published in English
October 1997
Media type Print (Hardcover, paperback)
Pages Hardcover 288 pp, paperback 326 pp
ISBN 1-86046-297-9
OCLC 38225068
Dewey Decimal 869.3/42 21
LC Class PQ9281.A66 E6813 1997
Followed by Seeing

Blindness (Portuguese: Ensaio sobre a cegueira, meaning Essay on Blindness) is a novel by Portuguese author José Saramago. It is one of his most famous novels, along with The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and Baltasar and Blimunda.

Plot summary[edit]

Blindness is the story of an unexplained mass epidemic of blindness afflicting nearly everyone in an unnamed city, and the social breakdown that swiftly follows. The novel follows the misfortunes of a handful of characters who are among the first to be stricken and centers on "the doctor's wife," her husband, several of his patients, and assorted others, thrown together by chance. This group bands together in a family-like unit to survive by their wits and by the unexplained good fortune that the doctor’s wife has escaped the blindness. The sudden onset and unexplained origin and nature of the blindness cause widespread panic, and the social order rapidly unravels as the government attempts to contain the apparent contagion and keep order via increasingly repressive and inept measures.

The first part of the novel follows the experiences of the central characters in the filthy, overcrowded asylum where they and other blind people have been quarantined. Hygiene, living conditions, and morale degrade horrifically in a very short period, mirroring the society outside.

Anxiety over the availability of food, caused by delivery irregularities, acts to undermine solidarity; and lack of organization prevents the internees from fairly distributing food or chores. Soldiers assigned to guard the asylum and look after the well-being of the internees become increasingly antipathetic as one soldier after another becomes infected. The military refuse to allow in basic medicines, so that a simple infection becomes deadly. Fearing a break out, soldiers shoot down a crowd of internees waiting upon food delivery.

Conditions degenerate further, as an armed clique gains control over food deliveries, subjugating their fellow internees and exposing them to rape and deprivation. Faced with starvation, internees do battle and burn down the asylum, only to find that the army has abandoned the asylum, after which the protagonists join the throngs of nearly helpless blind people outside who wander the devastated city and fight one another to survive.

The story then follows the doctor's wife, her husband, and their impromptu “family” as they attempt to survive outside, cared for largely by the doctor’s wife, who can still see (though she must hide this fact at first). The breakdown of society is near total. Law and order, social services, government, schools, etc., no longer function. Families have been separated and cannot find each other. People squat in abandoned buildings and scrounge for food. Violence, disease, and despair threaten to overwhelm human coping. The doctor and his wife and their new “family” eventually make a permanent home in the doctor's house and are establishing a new order to their lives when the blindness lifts from the city en masse just as suddenly and inexplicably as it struck.

Character analysis[edit]

The Doctor's Wife
A woman in her late forties, and the wife of an ophthalmologist. When the plague of blindness first devastates the city and the infected are placed into isolation, the doctor's wife feigns the sickness to stay with and care for her husband. She expects to lose her vision at any moment and keeps it secret, yet somehow she is the only person that remains immune to the contagion of blindness. She secretly assumes responsibility for the blind inmates, yet she admits that the pressures of caring for a band of helpless people exhausts her, and she even begins to wish she too were blind. She murders a sadistic inmate ("King of Ward 3") in the asylum where the blind are contained and helps the others escape the quarantine. She and her husband reappear in the novel's sequel, Seeing, where she is credited as the "Seeing Woman", and is viewed with mistrust and disdain by the other city dwellers, as no one knows how or why she retained her sight when the rest of the country was struck blind.
The Doctor
A friendly ophthalmologist who becomes blind after attempting to treat the first patient who is infected by the "white blindness." He too quickly goes blind and is placed into quarantine with his wife, who can still see but together they hide this fact for fear that she may be forced into becoming a slave for the blind inmates. He resents the dependence he has on his wife after he loses his sight. He is elected leader of his ward and does his best to keep order and peace through diplomatic strategies, but quickly finds his compassion does him little to no good amongst the bands of ruthless detainees in the asylum.
Girl with Dark Glasses
A beautiful young woman with a cold and unfeeling demeanor. She is struck blind while having casual sex in a hotel and is committed to the derelict asylum. Though at first she seems hard-hearted and icy, she reveals her naturally loving and warm nature while caring for an orphaned boy with a squint. By the end of the novel she has reformed her uncaring ways and compliments the doctor's wife as being "beautiful", despite having never seen her, claiming that in her (the girl's) dreams, the doctor's wife is always beautiful.
King of Ward 3
A brutal and cruel tyrant who holds the rest of the blind in the asylum at his mercy by controlling a group of thugs and wielding a gun. He deprives them of food and supplies in exchange for their valuables, but when those assets are exhausted, he establishes a system of nightly rape for his men to enjoy. The doctor's wife murders him with a pair of scissors when she can stand his evils no longer. Upon his death his assistant takes his gun and barricades the clique into their ward. This escalation starts a terrifying war, which ends in a woman setting fire to their ward, with the King's thugs becoming trapped and perishing in the blaze that ultimately consumes the entire asylum.
Man with Black Eye Patch
A kind and mysterious old man who reacts calmly to the blindness that is infesting the city, and keeps the inmates of the asylum updated with news of the outside world with his radio. He is very spiritual, and after the blindness lifts from the country, he states that he hopes they have learned a very valuable lesson about human nature.

Style[edit]

Like most works by Saramago, the novel contains many long, breathless sentences in which commas take the place of periods. The lack of quotation marks around dialogue means that the speakers' identities (or the fact that dialogue is occurring) may not be immediately apparent to the reader. The lack of proper character names in Blindness is typical of many of Saramago's novels (e.g. All the Names). The characters are instead referred to by descriptive appellations such as "the doctor's wife", "the car thief", or "the first blind man". Given the characters' blindness, some of these names seem sharply ironic ("the boy with the squint" or "the girl with the dark glasses").

The city afflicted by the blindness is never named, nor the country specified. Few definite identifiers of culture are given, which contributes an element of timelessness and universality to the novel. Some signs hint that the country is Saramago's homeland of Portugal: the main character is shown eating chouriço, a spicy sausage, and some dialogue in the original Portuguese employs the familiar "tu" second-person singular verb form (a distinction which used to exist in English as the now largely archaic pronoun thou). The church, with all its saintly images, is likely of the Catholic variety.

Sequel and adaptation[edit]

Saramago wrote a sequel to Blindness in 2004, titled Seeing (Ensaio sobre a lucidez, literal English translation Essay on lucidity), which has also been translated into English. The new novel takes place in Portugal and features several of the same characters.

An English-language film adaptation of Blindness was directed by Fernando Meirelles. Filming began in July 2007 and stars Mark Ruffalo as the doctor and Julianne Moore as the doctor's wife. The film opened the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.[1]

In 2007 the Drama Desk Award Winning Godlight Theatre Company[2] staged the New York City theatrical premiere of Blindness [3] at 59E59 Theaters. This stage version was adapted and directed by Joe Tantalo. The First Blind Man was played by Mike Roche.[4]

An outdoor performance adaptation by the Polish group Teatr KTO, was first presented in June 2010. It has since been performed at a number of venues, including the Old College Quad of Edinburgh University during the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Shortly before his death, Saramago gave German composer Anno Schreier the rights to compose an opera based on the novel. The libretto is written in German by Kerstin Maria Pöhler. Like the German translation of the novel, the opera's title is "Die Stadt der Blinden". It saw its first performance on November 12 of 2011 at the Zurich Opera House.

See also[edit]

  • The Day of the Triffids, the 1951 John Wyndham novel (and its many adaptations) about societal collapse following widespread blindness

Notes[edit]