José Saramago’s masterpiece Blindness is one of the few novels I have read which manages to use extended metaphor in such a way as not to make me weary of the imposition of values on fact. What I mean by this is that extended metaphor, if sustained for long enough in a work, makes the work into a sort of allegory in which the reader is always busy imputing other values to literal words and things. An example is of course Pilgrim’s Progress, in which we are “clued in” to the values which must be read in by having certain words and names capitalized and used repeatedly to illustrate the point the author is trying to make. But the main value which Saramago uses in an allegorical way, or as an extended metaphor, is “blindness.” And he keeps the fear of blindness closely enough tied to the actual condition that we can perceive his characters’ predicaments for ones likely to be suffered by blind people in a real-life, literal setting. As well, the characters do not stand for abstract qualities, but are kept very closely drawn as real people, with realistic feelings and impulses. They have no names except for example “the doctor,” “the girl with the dark glasses,” “the old man with the black eye patch,” “the doctor’s wife,” etc. Thus, though their situation is allegorical, they are people whom we can see as very like us in a novel (meaning here “new” or “unprecedented”) situation.
The basic plot is this: one day, while driving in his car, a man is suddenly stricken with a new kind of blindness, not the “dark” blindness which people have always suffered before, but a kind of “white blindness” in which people see only a white mist before their eyes. From this uncertain beginning, the disease spreads, even affecting eye doctors and policemen and other people in every walk of life, while authorities try not only to stop the spread of the illness by guessing how it spreads (which no one is actually ever sure of) but also by confining to deserted public buildings those who have gone blind, in the suspicion that they may be contagious. Our focus is on a small group of characters who have interacted in an ophthalmologist’s office, who all happen to wind up in the same ward of an empty mental hospital used to confine the blind. The ophthalmologist himself has gone blind just as he was attempting to do research on this startling new condition, and only his wife, who has pretended to be blind so that she cannot be separated from him and can go along to help, is fully a witness to what is happening.
What happens, but very gradually, is that order breaks down and chaos reigns, as blind crooks lord it over the other inmates and make them pay with valuables and women’s sexual favors for their very food rations. The soldiers who are supposed to be monitoring the activity and the distribution of food are powerless (by choice) to affect change, because they are afraid to get too close to the blind lest the condition is contagious by sight of them. They in fact repeatedly threaten to shoot any of the blind who step too close. The halls are covered in excrement and other offal, including sometimes the bodies of those who have died, because there is no one in charge who can restore order and who will make sure that all the dead are buried. Thus, the halls of the mental hospital quickly become more and more polluted with things which actually are likely to cause contagion. The doctor as a figure of wisdom often has good ideas about what can be done, but it’s his wife who as a figure of mercy “steals the show” in the book. Because she inexplicably remains sighted, and resists or seems to have no selfish impulses, she is the moral compass of the book.
The characters’ blindness is basically the condition all humankind is in as it goes through its own petty or even important concerns from day to day, unaware of others or not taking them into account. Their new blindness forces them to calculate what others owe them and they owe others, and illuminates the human condition of desperation which can arise when there is not enough food, clothing, shelter. It is a question posed by life as to whether or not humans will become savages when they are driven into close competition for basic needs and services. They are only able to hear of the outside world when someone admits to having a radio, but then the voices from outside go dead, and the radio’s batteries are exhausted just after, so they must assume that things are chaotic on the outside as well.
Because of a fire, the seven characters find their way out of the hospital and into the broader world outside with the doctor’s wife leading them due to her still having her sight, but now they “see” that the mental hospital they were confined in is an apt symbol for the life outside in the world. Everyone has gone blind, domestic animals are eating from dead bodies, people are breaking into the homes of others in order to have somewhere to sleep safely. The doctor’s wife finds a small food store, and they are able to stay in a safe place, but their meetings with others everywhere are fraught with fear. They are afraid even to let others know that they have someone with them who can see, lest she have too many importunate demands placed on her or figuratively be torn limb from limb.
At this key juncture, I’m going to stop my synopsis, not because any highly unlikely series of events takes place and I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but because the novel is resolved with such feeling and compassion and insight that I don’t want to ruin your reading. This book is so deceptively simple as it moves from step to step, and we can understand each step in the series of events that take place. We can “see” and feel how and why the people act as they do; the motivations that Saramago gives them are easily accessible to our own feelings, as we put ourselves in their place. This book is a cautionary tale which asks humankind when it will begin to “see,” to respond to others adequately and to save itself thereby. From having opposed interests, you against me, the characters learn to cooperate and have lesson after lesson before them of what happens to those who cannot compromise. Above all, this work is a masterwork about ordinary people, even those among them who find it possible to be extraordinary. The doctor’s wife, the moral center of the book, is “sighted” in more than one way: she knows that it is through no virtue of her own that she has not lost her sight too, so she is always ready to help those who rely upon her, because she for some unknown reason has an advantage. This is not a matter of superiority of status or condition, but merely a matter of chance. Blind chance, as one might say. Thus, we all of us have some chance of someday being extraordinary because we are able to help someone else, and yet we will only be people with no particular status or name other than “the doctor’s wife,” “the doctor,””the girl with dark glasses,””the boy who cried for his mother,” etc. This is the promise and the state of all humanity, to be able to extend itself to others empathetically when necessary, if we only take advantage of the opportunity. This is the uplifting message of José Saramago’s book Blindness. I hope that you will have a chance to read it soon.