I am strangely and strongly drawn to stories of quarantine. Any novel involving a small group of people forcibly detained in each others' company due to mysterious or shocking circumstances unfailingly engages my interest. From Albert Camus' The Plague to Agatha Christie's Poirot mysteries to William Sleator's House of Stairs, something in me can't resist examinations of what happens to a small group of people when they are sealed away from the rest of society, left alone to establish their own order and parse the mysteries of their segregation. Needless to say, therefore, I was drawn to the premise of José Saramago's Blindness: an inexplicable epidemic of highly contagious blindness sweeps over a modern European city, and the authorities quarantine the newly blind in a decommissioned mental hospital. The blind are left to more or less fend for themselves, and their descent into degradation is witnessed and ameliorated by the one person who inexplicably keeps her eyesight: an intrepid woman known only as "the doctor's wife." Meanwhile, as the internees struggle to hold onto their humanity under adverse conditions, the entire city around them is also going blind, and the central band of characters must eventually confront the deepening chaos outside the asylum's walls.

Blindess turns out to be one of the more masterful, and definitely one of the most disturbing, portraits of quarantine I've read. In the tradition of Lord of the Flies, its vision of humans in a state of nature shows them - some of them, at least - devolving into cruel and tyrannical beasts, exercising brute strength to exploit those around them. It also, though, explores the complex struggle to maintain and simultaneously revise one's moral code in the face of inexplicable catastrophe. Interestingly, it may be the single sighted character who most alters her ideas of morality, recognizing that after what she has witnessed, the old rules no longer apply. I admired Saramago's subtlety on this front: recognizing that the rules have changed did not mean, for the central characters, abandoning all morality, sense of obligation, or definition of right and wrong. Rather, it was an acknowledgement that such a cataclysmic change as sudden blindness changes the person, and even more the society, to which it happens. Even the clichéd proverbs in the characters' mouths morph throughout the novel to reflect their new condition, and their thought processes even more so. At one point, another main character asks the doctor's wife if she loves her husband:

Do you love your husband, Yes, as I love myself, but should I turn blind, if after turning blind I should no longer be the person I was, how would I then be able to go on loving him, and with what love, Before, when we could still see, there were also blind people, Few in comparison, the feelings in use were those of someone who could see, therefore blind people felt with the feelings of others, not as the blind people they were, now, certainly, what is emerging are the real feelings of the blind, and we're still only at the beginning, for the moment we still live on the memory of what we felt...

This passage gives a sense of Saramago's quirky narration style, which took a bit of getting used to, but in the end I found quite effective at communicating the suddenly-blurred boundaries that characterize the lives of the newly-blind. It also showcases the novel's preoccupation with "the person [one] was" versus the person one has become, and the process whereby the transformation occurs. One of the things I liked about Blindness was the way in which the epidemic mutated, but did not erase, the personalities and values that existed in the sighted world.

One thing potential readers should know is that Blindness deals explicitly and lengthily with brutal rape. I'm pretty skeptical of the contemporary penchant for including rape scenes in fiction where they seem unnecessary or - god forbid - masturbatory, as many do, so I was on the alert during this darkest, middle section of Blindness. I have to say, though, the rape scenes here needed to exist. They are the logical conclusion of the blind bullies' descent into brutality, and Saramago gives us enough of a moment-by-moment account that we truly understand the terror and anguish they perpetrate. In their inhumanity, they are oblivious to the humanity of others, which is just one of the levels on which the "blindness" allegory functions in the novel. So too, witnessing and being subjected to the rapes is a turning-point for the main character; it forms the final breaking-point for her between the old rules and the new. Afterwards, her outlook has shifted, and she is capable of doing what she must do to survive, and to help those around her do the same. The scenes, therefore, performed several symbolic and plot-furthering purposes, and I finished the book feeling that they were integral to Saramago's larger vision. Nonetheless, those with their own sexual trauma might want to approach the novel with caution.

Several sound-byte reviews claim this novel as an allegory of "the events of the century"; I assume they are referring primarily to the Holocaust and the AIDS epidemic. And it is certainly relevant to both of those catastrophes, or to any set of events, this century or earlier, in which a sudden sickness or disaster has swept over and radically changed a society. But it's also enjoyable as a story in its own right, or as a parable of our everyday condition. In the middle of the novel one of the main characters, an old man with an eyepatch (half-blind, therefore, even before the epidemic's onset) encourages a group of inmates to share the circumstances under which they went blind. There is an intriguing hint that the state of blindness - or obliviousness - is caused by the thought or fear of blindness, as in the cases of the pharmacist's assistant, who goes blind upon hearing of the epidemic and fearing for himself, the museum patron whose last vision is of a painting of a horse with bulging, fearful eyes, the car thief who rightly imagines that his victim's blindness will infect him, and the old man himself, who goes blind in the act of lifting up his eye patch to look at his missing eye. Such a causality is appealing: all we have to fear, as the man said, is fear itself, and so on. By obsessing on ourselves and our own vision, we become blind. Yet there are enough counter-examples to throw this theory into doubt: the girl who went blind at the moment of orgasm, thinking of nothing but her own pleasure; the woman who goes blind while pressing the button of an elevator; and, of course, the first victim of the epidemic, who goes blind while stopped at a traffic light and would have had no reason to be thinking about sight or blindness at the time. Here we have the human search for causality, juxtaposed with the ever-present possibility that all these events are random, impersonal. Then there is the even more disturbing idea that, as the doctor's wife theorizes at the end of the novel, this social blindness has been an integral part of the human condition all along:

Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, 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.

(Blindness was my first novel for the main Orbis Terrarum Challenge.)


  • Glad you found such a rewarding first read for the OT Challenge! I have another Saramago work at home waiting to be read, but I'm afraid it's been gathering dust for a while. One of these days...

  • Have you read Saramago's "Seeing" which is the sequel to "Blindness"? It's a frightening portrayal of how governments respond to what they perceive as threats, and it involves several of the characters from "Blindness," although they don't appear until over halfway through the novel.

  • Thanks for the tip, Hedgie! There's a little taster of "Seeing" at the end of my copy of "Blindness," and it definitely piqued my interest. I'll have to check it out.

  • This is one I really want to read, but I think I have to be in the right mood. Thanks for an excellent review - it floated the book higher up on my TBR-pile.

    /Eva - fellow OT-er

  • This is one I've yet to read. I really fell in love with Saramago's The History of the Siege of Lisbon, and vow to read all of his books. I have Seeing on my shelf, but it'll have to wait until after I've read Blindness. Thanks for the insightful review!

    By the way, The Orbis Terrarum Challenge directed me to your older site, and I'm glad I clicked Home and found my way here. This is such a beautiful blog, and I love your title.

  • Dear Emily,

    could you please help me to a copy of Borges' essay 'Blindness' -
    online it's nowhere to find and also not in my university library..!

    Thank you so much in advance,
    my best


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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography