Blindness, a novel by Portuguese author José Saramago, depicts the dystopian outcome of a plague of white blindness, (clunky) a mysterious disease that eventually becomes known among the novel’s characters as the “white evil.” Saramago quickly introduces the malady, recounting the first infection within the first few pages of the novel. Out of fear of future contamination, the government arranges for a quarantine in an abandoned mental asylum. Inside the asylum, the reader follows the harrowing account of a small group of internees led by the Doctor’s Wife, who is the only person to retain her eyesight. The white blindness spreads at a seemingly exponential rate to the point that the whole world has fallen victim to the “white evil.” Once the number of quarantined individuals accumulates in the asylum, social order crumbles and morality disintegrates, for even the Doctor’s Wife balances on the cusp of right and wrong. However, there still remains those individuals who make decisions that demonstrate altruistic sacrifice for the good of the rest. José Saramago writes a captivating story of not only social decay, but also the emergence of a new morality only present in the most desperate circumstances.
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An easier way to establish context for Blindness would be to analyze Saramago’s life as well as the historical events surrounding it. On November 16, 1992, José Saramago was born in Azinhaga, Portugal in the Ribatejo province to a poor farming family. His father had served in the French military during World War I, and he decided to pursue a career in law enforcement in Lisbon, Portugal’s capital. Their way of living had greatly improved because of his new job, but they remained poor regardless of a new home. Saramago’s parents sent him to grammar school, though, they could not afford the tuition long enough for him to finish his studies. As a result, Saramago attended a technical school to become a mechanic while studying literature during his free time. Before marrying his first wife Ilda Reis in 1944, he began working as an administrative civil servant for the Social Welfare Service. Three years later he published his first book, The Land of Sin, though his initial literary endeavors were not very successful. He wrote more novels, but he failed to publish his projects. Saramago describes his early attempts at writing in his autobiography, “The matter was settled when I abandoned the project[s]: it was becoming quite clear to me that I had nothing worthwhile to say… For 19 years, I was absent from the Portuguese literary scene, where few people can have noticed my absence” (Saramago, “Autobiography”).
For more than half of Saramago’s life, the brutal Portuguese fascist dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, a former professor, was in power (1928 – 1974). Salazar drew inspiration for his own dictatorial rule from Hitler and Mussolini, just as Saramago modeled his mental asylum in Blindness after Salazar’s appalling and inhumane prisons that simulated Nazi concentration camps as well as the Japanese internment camps in the United States following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In an interview for a Portuguese newspaper, Saramago calls his mental asylum the “final solution,” a resemblance of Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews (quoted in Frier). Not only were the prisoners subjected to horrifying punishments such as being forced to lie under the African sun, the ocean water flowed into the chambers everyday, washing up both garbage and human waste (Frier). The mental asylum, though not against an ocean, also filled with human excrement because the internees had given up locating the restrooms after a few days, resorting to defecating on the floor or on their beds. ( Same as last sentence?)
One could be sent to these prisons, the most notorious being Tarrafal on the Cape Verde Islands, for being a dissident and for criticizing the Portuguese government, often without physical evidence. António de Rigueiredo, a Portuguese dissident, recounts his experience in Tarrafal, “After 1945, as soon as the regime felt sure of its survival and new alliances, it passed from arbitrary but casual repression to a scientific system” of incarcerating individuals (quoted in Frier). Another prisoner recalls that the only doctor in Taraffal neglected prisoners and allowed them to die in the unsanitary conditions of the prison (Frier). Though the victims of the “white evil” in Blindness were not interned for any political reason, they experienced many of the same abuses by the military; their force was a direct order from the government as well as out of fear of being contaminated. A sergeant on assignment tells his soldiers after he has killed an internee, “From now on, we shall leave the containers at the halfway point, let the/m come and fetch them, we’ll keep them under surveillance, and at the slightest suspicious movement, we fire” (Saramago 84). Although these prisoners try to approach their providers without provoking attack, their blindness prevents them from knowing whether they will be shot for making a wrong move. Acquiring the daily rations most often ends in violence or verbal abuse from the military.
Saramago was highly distrusting of the Salazar regime and government, so he joined the Portuguese Communist Party in 1969. To do so was illegal under Salazar’s dictatorship. Within the last few years of Salazar’s rule, Saramago worked for two Lisbon newspapers, Diário de Lisboa and, later, Diário de Nóticias. He lost his job from the latter in 1975 after the new anti-Communist government had come into power. With no hopes of finding another journalistic position, he turned to writing literature and developed his unique writing, consisting of very little punctuation and dialogue within narration.
His later novels became much more successful, though he met much opposition from both the Catholic Church and the Portuguese government because of Communistic and anti-religious undertones. Baltazar and Bilmunda (1982) criticized the role of Catholicism in 18th-century Portugal. The Church criticized The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991), claiming that Saramago’s depiction of Jesus was too human and offensive to the Church (Saramago, “Autobiography”). Because the government was very much influenced by the Church, it did not allow this novel to be presented for the European Literary Prize. Many of Saramago’s supporters protested the decision. Later on, Saramago moved to the Canary Islands with his second wife, Pilar del Río, because the support he received inspired him to write even more. There, he wrote his two most famous novels, Blindness (1995) and All the Names (1997).
Saramago expresses his distrust for the Church again in Blindness in a scene towards the end of the novel in which the Doctor’s Wife enters a church that has become a refugee camp for the blind. She observes that “all the images in the church had their eyes covered, statues with a white cloth tied around the head, paintings with a thick brushstroke of white paint, … there was only one woman who did not have her eyes covered, because she carried her gouged-out eyes on a silver tray” (Saramago 317). She tells her husband and he replies, “Perhaps it was the work of someone whose faith was badly shaken when he realised that he would be blind like the others, maybe it was even the local priest” (Saramago 317). The strange alteration of the images and the speculation that a priest may be behind them suggests that, just as the world has been struck blind, so too has the Church. God and the saints no longer listen to the pleas of the victims. Naturally, those who in the church are offended from hearing the mere suggestion that their faith could not cure them. However, they flee the church after a few scream at the thought that what the Doctor and his wife say may be true. Shortly after, people slowly begin to regain their sight. In her analysis of the novel, Carole Champagne says that “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” (Champagne). So long had the refugees in the church depended on their faith for a moral balance until they had regained their sight. They would no longer have to look to a higher power that did not answer their prayers.
The presence of morality in a damaged society, and the lack thereof, and the consequences that result from right and wrong are major themes of José Saramago’s Blindness. Early in the novel, as the Ministry of Health arrives at the Doctor’s apartment, his wife attempts to accompany him. The ambulance driver refuses to let her in, but she claims that she has been struck blind. Shortly after, the reader learns that she had faked her blindness though she is sure that she will eventually become blind. After days of experiencing the unsanitary conditions and constant conflict between internees, the Doctor’s Wife feels the need to help them, though she struggles both with herself and with her husband over the proposition. Her husband tells her, “Think of the consequences, they will almost certainly try to turn you into their slave, … [Y]ou will be at the beck and call of everyone… [D]on’t think that blindness has made us better people, It hasn’t made us any worse, We’re on our way though” (Saramago 133). The Doctor suggests that the people’s morality has left along with their sight, and that once his wife tries to assist them, she will be taken advantage of until she no longer can utilize her sight for herself. What she had thought was the right thing to do had gotten her caught in a downward spiral of disintegrating social order and chaos.
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Also, early in the novel, the First Blind Man confronts the Car Thief in the asylum. As soon as the First Blind Man discovers that his “Samaritan” had stolen his car after bringing him home, they immediately resort to hopeless fist fighting. This event signifies the first descent into moral decline, especially with how quickly the event transpires, though the First Blind Man’s reaction to the car theft is still a normal reaction a sighted person would have. As the novel progresses, interpersonal conflicts become more prevalent among the internees, especially when dealing with the meager rations the government supplies them. The Doctor says, “Fighting has always been, more or less, a form of blindness” (Saramago 133). Fighting had existed before the whole world was struck blind, suggesting that people had already been blind, not in the literal sense but blind to each other’s needs.
The conflict over food finally escalates to the point that a group of hoodlums band together to take control of all the food in hopes of taking all the internees’ valuables. The Doctor’s Wife organizes a resistance to fight against the gang, though it end in bloodshed on her side. In their confrontation, the head of the gang says to the Doctor’s Wife, “I won’t forget your voice,” and she responds without thinking, “Nor I your face” (Saramago 140). Though she can physically see the hoodlum’s face, her threat suggests that only his face could belong to something so evil that would take food away from the rest of the internees.
As if foreshadowing a heightened conflict, the First Blind Man says to the Doctor, “Well, I’m not entirely convinced that there are limits to misfortune and evil” (Saramago 144). After the hoodlums run out of valuables to steal from the other internees, they demand that each ward send in all its women to satisfy their lust. Otherwise, the wards would not get their food. Immediately the men pressure the women to visit the hoodlums and have sex with them for the well-being of the others. The women, fearing for their lives, become enraged and chastise the men for suggesting they appease the hoodlums. While some of the women listened to the men’s reasoning, others challenge the men with the same attitude the men had expressed. “And what would you do if these rascals instead of asking for women had asked for men, what would you do then[?]” (Saramago 168). One man replies, “There are no pansies here,” while another woman says, “And no whores either” (Saramago 168). In desperation, the asylum has erupted into a mess of sexism and moral degradation. The men would be willing to give up their women in exchange for food, thus reducing and objectifying the status of women. A small group of women including the First Blind Man’s Wife and the Doctor’s Wife agree to prostitute themselves despite protests by their husbands, the former especially. The narrator concludes the women’s decisions: “[D]ignity has no price, that when someone starts making small concessions, in the end life loses all meaning” (Saramago 169). At the expense of the men, the group of women experience a brutal gang rape, resulting in the death of one of the women. To restore the dead woman’s dignity, the Doctor’s Wife finds water to wash her. This event indicates how much the community within the asylum has degenerated, for the men have put a price on the bodies of the women they know.
Perhaps the event that illustrates the most difficult moral decision of the whole novel is the murder of the hoodlums’ leader. Prior to the event, the Doctor’s Wife discovers that she had brought a pair of scissors with the intent of helping her husband shave. She never uses them for the original purpose and hangs them on a wall. However, after her rape, she grabs the scissors without hesitation and heads for the hoodlums’ ward. As the leader rapes one of the women, the Doctor’s Wife sneaks behind him and stabs him in the throat as he has an orgasm. “His cry was barely audible, it might have been the grunting of an animal about to ejaculate, as was happening to some of the other men” (Saramago 189). Saramago describes the hoodlums as having degenerated to the point of becoming animals, acting solely upon appeasing natural inclinations and vices. The Doctor’s Wife runs away with the raped woman and breaks down. She justifies the murder by thinking, “And when is it necessary to kill… When what is still alive is already dead” (Saramago 192-93). Though the first inclination is to think that the Doctor’s Wife justified the murder because the hoodlum had proven himself to be incapable of being human, she could have meant that it was she who was the inhuman one. She is the only sighted person among the blind. If even she has dropped to this level of moral decay, then the rest of the internees have little hope in restoring their own humanity until they regain their sight.
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