José Saramago (1922–2010 ), one of Portugal’s most famous writers, was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988. His novel Blindness is considered one of his most outstanding literary achievements. A speculative parable reminiscent of Albert Camus’s The Plague, Blindness examines the reasons for a mysterious social and moral breakdown in a typical modern city. Saramago’s narrative uses the literal blindness of almost all the inhabitants of his city as a political, psychological, and spiritual metaphor.
Blindness is written in a distinctive style that Saramago developed when he returned to literature after a 20-year hiatus. This novel eschews conventional punctuation and paragraphs, moves between the first and third person, and shifts tense and perspective; it blends narrative, description, and dialogue to create a dreamlike fl ow of voices and episodes that reflect on the idea of blindness in all its permutations. The author effectively establishes the realistic consequences of a loss of vision and at the same time suggests the symbolic reverberations of a moral and spiritual condition.
Structured around a series of crises involving a mysterious epidemic of blindness, the novel presents as a major theme the demoralizing impact of the affliction and the way in which it leaves chaos and criminality in its wake. In an effort to cope with the epidemic, the authorities imprison the blind in a former mental institution where they must to fend for themselves. The scarce and putrid food and the crowding and squalid conditions are exacerbated by the increasingly unruly behavior of the institution’s inmates. The breakdown of morality reaches its nadir with the rise of a band of blind men who victimize and humiliate other prisoners through such criminal transgressions as theft, rape, and terror. Humanity’s worst instincts surface and social order disintegrates as individuals are overwhelmed by fear, confusion, and utter helplessness.
Saramago’s narrative makes clear that the literal blindness of the inhabitants of the asylum is also a hysterical blindness, a pathology of consciousness that locks an individual within himself and deprives him of an ability to perceive his own humanity and the humanity of others. This isolating self-involvement, with its loss of genuine connection to other people, leads to a frightened, dehumanized society, a degraded world of predators and prey, criminals and victims— irreparable and hopeless.
Within this collapsing society, however, a little group of seven people begin to work together to regain a modicum of humanity. The leader of this group is the Doctor’s Wife, the only sighted person in the novel, who has accompanied her ophthalmologist husband to the asylum, even though she is not blind. Her eyesight gives her practical and moral advantages. This sighted woman allows Saramago to explore not only the meaning of blindness but also the meaning of vision. She is instrumental in organizing the group, to keep it safe and fed, in addition to providing spiritual lucidity; she never loses her sympathetic feeling or her moral intelligence. Blindness in this regard is associated with the death of the heart and with the loss of concern for other human beings; the sight of the Doctor’s Wife, on the other hand, is associated with compassion and the retention of an innate moral compass.
Another woman in the group, a prostitute known as the Girl with Dark Glasses, begins to display some of the virtues of the Doctor’s Wife. She voluntarily assumes the care of a small boy and an old man, with whom she eventually falls in love. After the Doctor’s Wife has led the group out of the asylum and into the city, which has also been universally afflicted with the same epidemic of sightlessness, another major character emerges, the Dog of Tears. When the Doctor’s Wife breaks down in despair due to the seemingly impossible burdens she has assumed, the Dog of Tears comforts her and gives her the strength to continue. Looking into the woman’s sighted eyes, he connects with her on a deeply spiritual level, once again allowing Saramago to remind the reader that, in this novel, seeing represents the sacred core of each living being.
The Doctor’s Wife manages to secure safety for her little group by leading them to her apartment, a site of both literal and spiritual cleansing as they all bathe on her terrace in the rain. The social conditions elsewhere, however, deteriorate, with increasing scarcity, disorder, and confusion. It is at this point that the Doctor’s Wife wanders into a church filled with those praying for rescue and consolation. She realizes that all the eyes of the statues of religious figures in the church are covered. A priest, radically, has blinded the icons upon whose intercession the people have come to depend. The blinding of the religious images has deprived the icons of the spiritual solace that they represent, rendering them equivalent to the unfeeling, unthinking, and blinded people who worship them. When the Doctor’s Wife tells the assembled congregation that the holy images lack sight, the people abandon the church and soon regain their sight, as if the demystification of the religious symbols is somehow linked to the subsequent miraculous recovery. Vision allows the people in the city to begin to restore order. Symbolically, the powers associated with the images in the church have been transferred to humanity, who are empowered to use their own moral and spiritual resources—their own eyes—which are their birthright.
Throughout his novel, Saramago has skillfully woven the concepts of blindness and sight in such a way as to suggest that these two conditions metaphorically constitute the general situation of humanity, which is always vulnerable to a deadening moral blindness as well as capable of tremendous moral lucidity. The final words of the Doctor’s Wife indicate just this when she tells her husband that the people of the city were blind and not sightless—blind people who can see but choose not to do so. Her glance at an empty, white sky at the end of the novel, which gives her the momentary impression that she, too, may be affl icted by blindness, encourages her to return her eyes to the happy sight of the revitalized city that has survived its dark journey.
The connection Saramago makes between blindness and humanity’s deference to holy images specifically speaks to conditions in his home country of Portugal under the long dictatorship (1932–68) of António de Oliveira Salazar (1889–1970). Salazar, a fervently religious ruler, was committed to putting into action the social principles expressed by the Catholic Church under Pope Leo XIII. But on a more universal level, Saramago’s narrative is a parable of good and evil. While he subjects his characters to a series of dispiriting ordeals stemming from an essentially pessimistic premise, the author also suggests that humanity’s capacity for intelligence, hope, compassion, and moral strength can defeat the forces of blindness in any given society.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Jose Saramago. New York: Chelsea House, 2005.
Cole, Kevin L. “Jose Saramago’s Blindness.” The Explicator 64, no. 2, (Winter 2006): 109–112.