BLINDNESS: Jose Saramago
(Page edited by Kelly M.)

Brief Plot Summary

“Blindness” tells the story of several individuals engulfed in a widespread epidemic of “white blindness,” in which they only see bright white. All blind and those in contact with them are quickly interned in an old mental hospital facility. In an effort to stay with her husband, a now-blind Opthamologist’s wife fakes her own blindness and follows him and several other internees into a new hell. A story of survival against an army of "liquidators" and sacrifice ensues, during which the internees are led by the last remaining seeing woman.

About the Author

These days, Jose Saramago is not an easy man to find- at least, not in America. All of the bestselling novels in the U.S. are translated from Portugese, Saramago's first-spoken language. He addressed the Nobel Association in Portugese in 1998, when he won the Nobel for literature. Only one interview by New York Times journalist Fernanda Eberstadt gave a clear picture of his beliefs and ideals to the American public .

Born in 1922 to underprivileged Portugese peasants in a soon-to-be overthrown republic, Jose Saramago was quickly and permanently shaped into an Atheist Communist who believes religion is the cause of most acts of violence. He currently lives "in exile" in the Canary Islands, perhaps his very own utopia.

"Unless I can see things with these eyes of mine that the earth will one day devour, I don't believe in them."
-- Saramago on his own writing

Popular Response

New York Times: "Zero Visibility" (requires Literature Resource Center Subscription)

See A. O. Scott's review in "'Blindness' in the Movies"
On blogcritics.org, a popular book review site, several article commentators praised the novel along with the reviewer, Joel Caris. Full review here: "Jose Saramago's Blindness"

As a bold and sometimes vulgar story of destruction and survival, the novel found a mainstream audience of thrill-seekers. Several reviewers, including NY Times' A. Miller, compare Saramago to well-known apocalyptic, allegorical authors such as Theodore Fontane (Effi Breist, 1895). Most popular audiences see the story as an allegory for what we see when we are blind, and vice versa.
The book received nationwide high marks as well as outstanding praise in Saramago's place of birth. The novel contributed to Saramago's Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998 (Berrett).

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

1. Humans like wild dogs
Saramago makes both explicit and implicit connections between the blind internees and wild dogs. While the protagonist is compared to a compassionate canine with the capacity to heal emotional wounds and strengthen, other internees are compared to the more independent animal who fends for himself and himself only.

2. Human Nature
The novel addresses several reactions to blindness, risk of death, and lack of control- from those who act destructively to those who make the best of the situation- questioning whether it is really in our nature to be selfish, selfless, or somewhere in between- or if it is a result of "nurture," or the environment each person is put in.

3. Physical versus Emotional effects of blindness
The author describes the literal consequences of mass blindness (lack of cleanliness, loss of self-consciousness, etc.) to a nauseating extreme. However, he makes his real impact on readers by exploring the minds of blind individuals, exposing a much more horrifying mental experience: confusion, violence, and above all, fear. The long-term reactions to the mass epidemic are far more revealing than the initial; human beings are reduced to desperate rapists, and even more desperate murderers.

4. Evolution/Devolution
Without our vision, how different are we from the rest of the animal kingdom? In this novel blindness is accompanied by a loss for humanity, in short.

5. Relationships
The doctor and wife remain together even after he compromises their marriage by being unfaithful. The self-absorbed young woman forms a motherly bond with a small abandoned boy. Strangers lean on one another in a time of desperation.

6. Lessons
Who learned more? The blind, or the seeing?

Scholarly/Popular Debates over Themes

Salon Books' Jesse Berrett reviewed Blindness to a popular audience. He sees the book as one of terror; he compares the ideas in the novel to the Holocaust and the AIDS epidemic in its gravity. A short but powerful review, he makes the point that "blindness merely amplifies everyone's fundamental helplessness and interdependence and makes plain the lies they tell themselves to get through the day," suggesting that the blind internees were already incredibly vulnerable and therefore susceptible to any number of radical ideas before blindness set in.
Berrett also recognizes that "what seems at first to be a happy ending may be anything but."
Quote of note: "What have we wrought by choosing so selectively what we can bear to look in the face?"

Kevin L. Cole explicated the novel (in the Explicator, no less) with the thesis that the canine, though often described as humanlike, is much more compassionate than any human in Blindness. This author suggests that the savior of the story does carry some religious significance, "baptizing" the internees when he shakes the water off his fur coat. He sees the dog of tears as a more human creature, though in a good way: the protagonist and the dog's emotions are completely in sync throughout the novel.

My comments: (See Analysis) This article acknowledges the "baptism" by the dog of tears, whom the author says acts as a savior. However, Saramago has been extremely outspoken against religion in the past, saying that it was to blame for the world's violence.

David Bolt validated Cole's article one year later that furthered the connection between humans and animals when certain vital senses such as sight are removed. He notes the depiction of the internees "on all fours," the "lack of empathy" between the blind and the seeing, the "extraordinary sense of smell" (despite the lack of scientific proof that the blind have a heightened sense of smell), and the general uncleanliness of the blind internees. He makes use of many quotes from the book, including these two:
"twitching, tense, their necks craned as if they were sniffing at something, yet curiously, their expressions were all the same."
"dirty, dirtier than he could ever remember having been in his life. There are many ways of becoming an animal, he thought, this is just the first of them."
Bolt concludes that the novel is written based on the stereotypes and metaphorical effects of blindness in humans versus the realities of the impairment.

Sandra Kumamoto Stanley at CRITIQUE's scholarly review of the novel is named "The Excremental Gaze," suggesting her thesis that as the epidemic of white blindness spreads, the world has disintegrated to such an extent that everything and everyone has been reduced to waste. She extensively compares the human body and its wastes to the "social and political body," and notes an interesting historical connection: Saramago writes the novel during a decade of epidemics: AIDS, computer viruses, etc. Like other readers she notes the apocalyptic tone of the book, where blindness acts as a biblical plague of sorts, but does not put as much emphasis on this theme as she does on the connection between the physical body and the ruins around the internees.

Writing Style

The erratic, free-flowing style of the novel serves several different purposes as the story progresses.
1. When the population first begins to turn blind, the run-on paragraphs and quick description enhance the confusion and chaos that come with such a surprising, fear-inducing epidemic.
2. As the story becomes more suspenseful in a life-or-death battle within the abandoned mental hospital between two groups of blind internees, the style serves as an added suspense.
3. When the doctor's wife describes her guilt, along with the other protagonists, for the way they have acted and the people they have affected, the writing style makes each voice more candid and truly real, giving the book the appeal of a documentary in novel form.

The Unpopular Reaction to Blindness

The nation's organization for the blind of America reacted to Blindness (mainly the movie version) with outrage. They saw the characters' lack of hygiene, animalistic characteristics and extreme "devolution" as extremely insulting to the blind community (IMDB).

"Blindness" in the Movies

One decade after the release of the novel, Blindness the movie hit the Cannes Film Festival. The film stars Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore
(playing the opthamologist and wife, respectively) and closely follows the novel’s storyline of a worlwide epidemic of blindness. Saramago was approached in 1998 after his Nobel prize win about a film adaptation of the popular novel, but he rejected the idea, saying that he “didn’t want it to fall in the wrong hands.” However, writer Don McKellar convinced Saramago that his screenplay would not be that of a zombie flick. (Premier PR)
The official genre of the movie is "Drama," though reviewers frequently describe it as a powerful horror film. The dark, depressing nature of the book carries through on screen with few of the book's shocking details left out. More than any other theme noted above, the film focuses on that of human nature: what do we do when we are most desperate?
Praise for "Blindness" the movie:
2008 Cannes Film Festival "Blindness"
IMDB gives the movie 6.8/10 stars (based on user voting).
"Blindness" on IMDB
Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a lower rating of 5.2 out of 10 stars. "Blindness" on RT

A.O. Scott at the New York Times gave an especially analytic review of the film, though his identification of themes in a movie he sees as "intellectually flimsy" suggests he is actually reviewing the novel itself. His review is unique in its analysis of "white" versus dark blindness:
"...No organic cause can be found for this condition, which manifests itself not as a descent into darkness but as a whiteout, as if the world had become a blank page, an empty screen or a puddle of milk."
In a relatively brief review directed at a popular rather than analytical audience, Scott manages to capture many hidden functions of the novel. He describes the ever-disintegrating situation in the medical ward as "tribal war," where "goodness can triumph by means of violence and deceit." He also notes the lack of character names, claiming each character is a theme, not a person, in our eyes.
According to Scott's review, the cast does not justify the simplistic depth of the novel's nameless characters, and the film in general is not a good one to see, with a dragging middle section. He concludes with this:
"...it does not, in the end, give you much to think about. But there is, nonetheless, a lot here to see."
Though Scott's review is technically a popular source, his thoughts o
n the novel are particularly insightful.

Original Analysis (Spoiler alert!!)

Blindness by Jose Saramago addresses human nature at its worst and best in a way that can only be described as “raw.” By exemplifying every possible moral character, survival instinct, and reaction to the physical and emotional effects of blindness, Saramago does not use the novel as a lesson, but rather raises the question of how much humans have actually evolved from other animals. Saramago even manages to turn a seemingly happy ending into a bleak future for the human race. In contrast, the protagonist appears to look to a metaphorical higher power for support throughout the book through the “dog of tears,” but the novel is written by an openly Atheist man.
A reader might not even notice that Jose Saramago leaves the characters unnamed through the entire novel, because each one can be identified by a characteristic or relationship: the doctor, the doctor’s wife, the elderly couple, the thief, the man with the eye patch, etc. Nonetheless, every character, whether a helpless victim of robbery or the thief that robbed him, is affected by an epidemic of “white blindness.”
Saramago equates all characters, from the blind internees to the soldiers who guard the interment with guns. He equates the blind hoodlums-turned-rapists with the blind women who fight back, and the harassing thief with the girl who unintentionally kills him. As the doctor says on page 314 to his wife, wracked with guilt, “one way or another we are all murderers.” He even suggests that blindness has not affected the nature of these people at all.
“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” (326). These are the doctor’s wife’s last words in the novel. Saramago ends the book abruptly after sight returns to the main group of characters. Therefore, the issues of reconstructing a town in ruins, hundreds dead, and reorganization are not addressed. While vision has been restored, have we really seen anything in a new light?
As a self-proclaimed atheist who has blamed religion for much of the violence in the world, one would expect Saramago to write a highly a-religious novel. However, the protagonist’s survival depends on a guardian angel of sorts, the “dog of tears.” Thus raises some questions: Is this book religiously motivated? Can it be read that way? Is the church in the last chapter a place of refuge? The priest of the church featured near the end of the novel paints every religious figure blind. When the guardian angel, or dog of tears, enters the building along with the protagonist, the peaceful setting quickly disintegrates into another stampede, questioning the power of the church over the situation. Is religion even free from blindness? Are the paintings a suggestion of Saramago’s own, that religious authorities are blind to reality?
Is the dog of tears a specifically religious or anti-religious figure? Perhaps Saramago, as an atheist, is creating his own neo-religion, in which humans are lead not by a physically higher authority such as an immortal being, but by a physically lesser authority, who may stand at a shorter height but carries much more wisdom and strength than a human. Maybe, then, he uses the loss of vision to suggest that when we don’t have to look in a specific direction to find our savior (in the case of most religions, up into the heavens) we see our real protectors.
There are countless interpretations for Saramago’s use of blindness in the novel. The book can be read a hundred times and still the reader might find a new point
Saramago makes with his premise. Some contradict each other. Others compliment. Even the cover, with its intricate overlay of the title, makes the meaning of blindness itself completely ambiguous. Saramago’s sequel, Seeing, leaves even more to the imagination.

Strangely, no scholarly critic appeared to address why blindness was white.

Questions for a reader to ponder

1. Why is blindness white?
2. What Sociopolitical structure does Saramago reject? Does he come up with a solution in the novel?
3. Why is the dog the animal of choice? Is the dog selected as a well-known human companion, for its poor eyesight, or for another reason?
4. Why do you think the doctor's wife retained her eyesight throughout the entire novel?
5. What role does the church play?

I couldn't get the hyperlinks at the end of each source in the bibliography to highlight as a link if they were longer than one line.


Berrett, Jesse. “Blindness.” Rev. of Blindness, by Jose Saramago. salon.com. 16 Oct. 1998. Salon Books, powered by Yahoo. 20 Mar. 2009

Bolt, David. “Saramago’s Blindness: Humans or Animals?” Explicator 66.1 (2007): 44. Literature Resource Center. Gale. 27 Feb. 2009

Cole, Kevin L. “Saramago’s Blindness.” Explicator 64.2 (2006): 109-12. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. 27 Feb. 2009

Eberstadt, Fernanda. “The Unexpected Fantasist.” New York Times Magazine 26 Aug. 2007. 16 Apr. 2009 <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/26/

Miller, Andrew. “Zero Visibility.” New York Times 4 Oct. 1998: 1-4. Literature Resource Center. Gale. 27 Feb. 2009 <http://go.galegroup.com/

Premier PR. “Blindness.” Rev. of Blindness, by Jose Saramago. Festival De Cannes Ofiicial Selection Competition, Cannes. Festival de Cannes.
2008. 6 Mar. 2009 <http://www.festival-cannes.com/assets/Image/Direct/025080.pdf>.

Saramago, Jose. “How Characters Became the Masters and the Author Their Apprentice.” Nobel Prize in Literature 1998. Sweden. 7 Dec. 1998.
Rpt. in Nobel Prize in Literature. Nobelprize.org. 2009. Nobel. 20 Mar. 2009 <http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1998/

Scott, A. O. “Characters Who Learn to See by Falling Into a World Without Sight.” Rev. of Blindness, by Fernando Meirelles. The New York
Times. 3 Oct. 2008. 15 Mar. 2009 <http://movies.nytimes.com/2008/10/03/movies/03blin.html>.

Stanley, Sandra Kumamoto. “The Excremental Gaze: Saramago’s Blindness and the Disintegration of the Panoptic Vision.” CRITIQUE:
Studies in Contemporary Fiction 45.3 (2004): 293. Literature Resource Center. Gale. 27 Feb. 2009 <http://go.galegroup.com/ps/retrieve.do?