Last Updated 20 Apr 2022

Blindness by Jose Saramago

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If an attempt is made to describe Jose Saramago’s Blindness in a single sentence, it will be justified to say that the novel is a product of the author’s extraordinary vision. Primarily an allegorical piece of fiction, Blindness is a literary masterpiece in terms of its subtle delineation of ironic humor and bleakness of existence. Numerous thematic constructs are interwoven into the plot of the novel. Post-modern literary techniques such as long sentences without punctuation marks, indefinite usage of proper nouns and so on are incorporated for illustrating the themes adequately.

The haunting prose style is beautifully supplemented by the sparse imageries of man’s worst appetites and weaknesses. The socialistic approach to the novel is as significant as the internal representations. This essay is going to elaborate on the arguments that connect the thematic devices of the novel. It might be noted that there are quite a few themes to be taken within the periphery of discussion in order to substantiate the author’s argumentative claims and subclaims.

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As the novel nears its end, one of the characters remark during the process of getting his vision back: “I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see. " (Saramago 292) This statement highlights the political and philosophical essence of the novel. The story of Blindness centers round a nightmarish vision of disorientation and loss. A city the identity of which is kept undisclosed is struck by a sudden epidemic, leaving its inmates blind. Nobody is able to find any apparent reason behind such a contagion.

The general tenor of panic and disorientation triggers a social breakdown. The camps set up by the civic administrative body to cater to the disaster are ill-governed. A sense of hopelessness and loss of direction runs through each individual’s psyche. In the wake of the epidemic, the initial government response involves setting up of large quarantine areas to accommodate the infected people. However, the filthy and overcrowded centers turn out to be grossly unhygienic to stand any chance of the inmates recovering. Soon, living conditions deteriorate rapidly, spreading a wave of nervousness and anxiety outside.

As far as the thematic significance is concerned, this anxiety plays a steering role through the length of the novel. Anxiety over inadequacy of food and medicine, anxiety over future and last but not the least, anxiety over administrative laxity collectively bring out the central theme of Blindness – of social system failure and mankind’s inane incapacity to care for strangers. As Bob Corbett points out, “How are we to imagine a world in which some central part of our meaning system suddenly disappears? ” (Corbett 1997) A summoning of horror in the uncertain context of the twentieth century is what Saramago pens down in the novel.

The disappearance of this central part can be understood right from the opening chapter when a man stuck in the traffic light loses his vision. The oxymoronic element present here is quite significant. The fact that this man loses his sight while standing in the traffic light and not in any dark corridor sums up the bitter irony of situation. The following course of events, all in a swift motion, underlines humankind’s perpetual struggle to cope with unexpected changes in habitual infrastructures. As soon as the first man goes blind, a series of misfortunes befalls the city. The person who takes him to an eye doctor also goes blind.

The entire plot is unfolded around the doctor and his wife, who eventually suffers the same fate as of others. The mysterious blindness doesn’t spare anybody in the unnamed city. A horrifying vision of the apocalypse, like in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, can be felt at every turn of a city that has gone berserk. The government’s disorganized attempt to restore sanity into proceedings falls short of its intended result as a gang of opportunists assume control of the chaotic surroundings. The political turmoil is juxtaposed against the psychological despair to address the theme of unexpected changes in known order.

In fact Saramago is well known for coalescing myth, fiction and history in his works in order to depict abrupt changes. The setting of Blindness allows the readers to embark on a timeless voyage back to the mysterious historical times associated with myths and legends. Modern technological advancements have been satirized by the author to undermine their inadequacy in dealing with unexpected blows: “[There] must be some mechanical fault, a loose accelerator pedal, a gear lever that has struck," but none of these technical problems are the cause of the car's prolonged halt.

The driver inside starts shouting and "to judge by the movement of his mouth he appears to be repeating some words, not one word but three, as turns out to be the case when someone finally manages to open the door, I am blind. ” (Saramago 1) A group of central characters in Blindness, united as a family in the wake of such an unprecedented disaster, play a crucial role. The characterization is done in a deliberate manner to serve the purpose of the plot. In other words, the storyline doesn’t discriminate between characters that are common in one aspect – they are all blind.

The doctor, his wife, the girl with dark glasses, the boy with the squint, the man with the black eye patch and the dog of tears are representative of the small world of struggling survivors in the face of seemingly incurable adversity. It is worth spotting that none of these characters has been given any proper name by the novelist. Blindness doesn’t need any nomenclature – this is perhaps the argument Saramago wants to advocate. They are called according to their position in the society and relation with each other.

The literary device deployed by Saramago to support his argument behind characterization involves continuous sentence structuring. Some of the sentences run half the length of a page, without any hyphenation or semi colon. Only commas and periods are used sparsely: “The amber light came on. Two of the cars ahead accelerated before the red light appeared. At the pedestrian crossing the sign of a green man lit up. The people who were waiting began to cross the road, stepping on the white stripes painted on the black surface of the asphalt, there is nothing less like a zebra, however, that is what it is called.

The motorists kept an impatient foot on the clutch, leaving their cars at the ready, advancing, retreating like nervous horses that can sense the whiplash about to be inflicted. The pedestrians have just finished crossing but the sign allowing the cars to go will be delayed for some seconds, some people maintain that this delay, while apparently so insignificant, has only to be multiplied by the thousands of traffic lights that... ”. (Saramago 3) Such writing style may immediately recall the stream-of-consciousness technique which is prolifically used in James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses.

Separated by almost a century with regards to dates of publication, there isn’t much difference in the treatment of themes between these two novels. This technique is normally adopted to do away with editing of thought processes as the writer writes. In Blindness, the apparent mystery of the situation and the resultant uncertainties require a technique or writing style that can conform to the inner vacuum the characters feel while expressing their thoughts. At the same time, the narrative must also synchronize with the dialogues. Hence, quotation is non-existent in Blindness.

Speeches merge onto one another in a continual maze of words. As a reader, one feels how difficult it is to broaden the viewpoint of observation. As if, a blind spot is generated in the actual reading of the novel, which puts interpretive constraints. As some critics have argued, Saramago’s profuse adaptation of allegorical means may have been inspired by his intent to emphasize more on human factors than on fatalistic elements. Although there are a few distinctive references to the contemporary technological aspects, Blindness doesn’t specify any timeframe.

Readers are not given any clear perception about the time the novel portrays. Thus, Blindness reflects a universality of creation, a ubiquitous presence upon human realms of perception. However, there are a few speculations made regarding the probable cultural setting of the novel. Tracing the nature of language spoken by the characters and their food habits, it has been argued that the country shown in the novel is likely to be Saramago’s homeland Portugal. The theme of timelessness is relevant in more than just one aspect of this discussion.

As is the case with Albert Camus’ The Plague, Blindness too is a novel which symbolically represents a widespread affliction, regardless of space or time. The predicament of humanity in the midst of social, political and ethical degeneration is not a theme that should not be kept bound under a constrained timeframe or spatial margin. Moreover, the way a group of people start fishing in troubled waters, exploiting the helpless condition of others, goes beyond the borderline of time and geographic barriers, echoing the universality of man’s futile but stubborn attempt to cope with disasters.

Apart from Albert Camus’ The Plague and Jose Saramago’s Blindness, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and P. D. James’ The Children of Men also showcase characteristics of human nature as they emerge in a crisis situation marked by rapid and uncontrollable epidemics. Blindness, however, is distinguishable from other novels in one crucial aspect. It reflects the deep-seated humanity of those who are compelled to depend on each other for the sake of survival.

This yearning for survival doesn’t seem to fit the category of existentialism or other post-modern philosophical doctrines since it is hampered by the loss of external senses of vision. So the vision must come from within. The message of hope in a situation which is least congenial to breeding of hope is conveyed through the character of doctor’s wife. She is the only person who manages to regain sight. When she and other group members flee from the asylum, the plot takes a turn toward the recreation of a world which is not robbed of all hopes.

Since she has vision, she can at least guide her companions in finding food and shelter. The argument Saramago’s seeks to put forth through this episode involves that of restoration of orderliness in a world which is blind. It might be noted, however, that only physical blindness is not the construct of the proposed argument. The spiritual blindness associated with chaos, opportunism and moral degradation is the fundamental base upon which the plot is built. As mentioned earlier, when the central system starts malfunctioning, human beings tend to cling onto each other in search of a helping hand.

A sudden change in the known world makes for a total loss of faith and triggers disorientation in the society. Doctor’s wife metaphorically symbolizes the dependable constant around which other variables revolve. But what does Jose Saramago want to tell in Blindness, especially through the thematic inclusion of ‘one person who is not blind’? Since the novel is widely accepted as an allegory, the question remains: It is an allegory of what? Finding a plausible answer to the question stated above is not an easy task in that multiple layers of interpretation can be made to it.

The main problem with an allegorical novel such as Blindness is that it accords too much freedom to the reader. It grants the room for too many interpretations. On one hand, the allegorical literary device helps reveal the basic needs of a social system – the need for food, shelter and most importantly, for fraternity. Hence the thematic concept of allegory refers to the interdependency of individuals within a system which threatens to go astray. But despite this interpretation, Blindness can be approached from a different viewpoint as well.

The novel can be studied as an allegory of human damnation. The novelist criticizes the so-called established norms of civilization in a staunch manner. He observes how human beings, when pitted against a failing central system of order, can indulge in brutal acts of cruelty among one another. This is manifested in the events occurring at quarantine centers where no law and order exists whatsoever. Even the military takes an indifferent stance and refuses to supply basic medication. Consequently, a simple infection assumes a deathly proportion, destroying the lives of many.

Timely food deliveries are hindered due to the illegal intervention of a gang of opportunists who unleash lethal torture on the hapless inmates. Thus the allegory of the novel can be explicated from a twofold perspective – firstly, it is a literary device which serves the purpose of underlying the fundamental social requirements for a smooth functioning, and secondly, it brings out the condemnable elements of a society devoid of any order or discipline. Corbett argues that the theory of allegory can also be done away with.

Blindness can be seen as a masterful piece of author’s logical reasoning of a world which lacks imaginative sensibility. This point of view insists on interpreting the major themes of the novel from a matter-of-fact perspective. There is nothing beyond what is literally apparent. The logical qualities prompt the readers to investigate into a city’s condition when everyone except a single lady goes blind all on a sudden. The only sighted person acts as a vehicle of hope and good fortune in a time when survival seems impossible.

According to Corbett, this methodology of explanation is also applicable to two other novels of Saramago, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and The Stone Raft. (Corbett 1997) The larger social picture painted by Blindness is of worth consideration. The collective physical loss of vision is used by the author as a metaphor for both ‘personal misfortune and social catastrophe’. (Snedeker 1997) The succession of events initiating from a single, odd instance of just one man getting blind while waiting at a traffic signal underscores the broader social context.

As the entire population goes blind, the social system starts to crumble under pressure. Public health officials working under the aegis of the government panic and mayhem descend over the city. The disintegration of faith and reliability is apparent as soldiers guarding the asylum premises threaten to kill anyone who attempts to flee. The disease of blindness is used metaphorically as a limitation from a personal context extending to collective domain. Finding themselves in a society which no longer functions as it should do, the blind men reach the breaking limits of despair and trauma.

Due to lack of food and other essential commodities for a healthy survival, the general ways of living begin deteriorating rapidly. Taking a cue out of the broader social significance of blindness, one can critically observe that the metaphor is not restrained to any uni-dimensional mode of interpretation. If approached logically, the sudden onset of the epidemic is nothing but an unfortunate incident that befalls a city, making the lives of its dwellers difficult. So this explanation follows a ‘real’ course.

But the symbolic implication becomes apparent when one takes into account the cultural impact of vision impairment that the author leaves ambiguous, arguably in an advertent manner. Hence, the epidemic, no matter whichever way the readers look at it, leads more to the notion of being a realistic literary device. An unnamed city, completely disintegrated by the sudden attack of an epidemic, struggles to combat not just the disease, but also the virtues that make up of human society.

A small group of people, led by a woman, find themselves in the squalid and terrifying spectacle of people scrounging for food and shelter. Such visions present a bleak and dreary setting of a post-modern novel. The abrupt ending, nearly as shocking as the beginning itself, goes to show how Saramago eluded the enticement of telling more than what is already indicated. Hence, the construct of allegory, even though it can be discarded from a ‘realistic’ approach, comes back once again. As the blind community of the city gets their vision back, everything seems to fall in pace for the city.

The veil of clouds is lifted over from a diseased and desperate existence of the city as if by some mysterious power, much to the relief of its inmates. It is apparent that the thematic constructs of change, human coping, the inevitability of disease and the undying spirit to overcome every adversity are extremely well manifested by the literary techniques adapted by the novelist in Blindness. This is particularly true in case of the profuse usage of long, unbroken sentences without too many punctuation marks.

Moreover, the speeches without quotation too act as a potent literary device to represent the internal crisis of the characters. Again, the use of descriptive appellation in naming of characters is self-explanatory of its intended purpose. It establishes the interconnection between various characters who are mutually dependent on each other for the sake of surviving in a blind world that does not distinguish between masses. So it can be concluded that characterization, setting and plot work as a cohesive unit in perfect synchronization with the thematic aspects.

It is virtually impossible to single out any particular argumentative theme if one attempts to focus on the novel in its entirety, especially if that focus takes into consideration the key literary devices.

Works cited

  1. Saramago, Jose. Blindness: a novel. London: Harvill Press, 1997.
  2. Corbett, Bob. “BLINDNESS. ” 1997. 10
  3. March 2009 <http://www. webster. edu/~corbetre/personal/reading/saramago-blindness. html> Snedeker, George.
  4. “BLINDNESS. ” 1997. 10 March 2009 <http://www. webster. edu/~corbetre/personal/reading/saramago-blindness. html>
Blindness by Jose Saramago essay

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