Blindness Summary

Jose Saramago

Blindness

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Blindness Summary

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Blindness is a 1995 novel by Jose Saramago. It was translated from Portuguese into English in 1997. It tells the story of an epidemic that strikes everyone with a mysterious blindness and the subsequent chaos that ensues as more and more people succumb to the disease.

A man is suddenly unable to see. He begs for help, and a man takes him home but steals his car. This man is also struck blind, as the disease begins to spread. Everyone who has contact with him, including an ophthalmologist, becomes blind, and when the doctor raises the alarm, people are forcibly quarantined to prevent the disease from spreading.

Those in quarantine experience worsening conditions, and the doctor’s wife, who is immune to the disease, pretends to be blind so she can join him in quarantine. People sleep in the hallways among excrement, and dead bodies go unburied for days. The delivery of rations becomes more and more erratic until everyone is unsure of when the next one will be.

Armed guards begin shooting those that try to escape, and a gang forms that prevents resources from getting to those inside. At first, they demand trades of valuables for the food, but soon people run out of things to trade. They begin to use force, and demand that women have sex with them to receive things like medicine and food. The inmates at the asylum don’t want to do this, but soon decide that it is their best option, and a series of gang rapes becomes the norm.

Eventually, the doctor’s wife retaliates by killing the leader of the gang and several other gang members. Another sacrifices herself by setting a fire that kills the remaining members, and the doctor’s wife helps her husband a few others to escape. They walk to the next city where they realize that the entire nation has fallen prey to the disease.

All institutions are in ruins. Families have been separated and cannot find each other. The breakdown of society is almost complete. They make their way back to the doctor’s house and try to put themselves back together as best they can. The doctor’s wife is their de facto leader, and they begin to form new relationships as they are together.

At the end of the story, the very first man who was struck blind regains his sight, proving that the epidemic is only temporary. It is never explained what happened or how it came to be. It lifts just as suddenly as it struck. The characters remark that soon everyone will be back to normal and the doctor comments that he does not believe anyone went blind. He believes they already were blind, blind but seeing, and now they can begin to see things how they are.

The story is a social critique of what we consider norms, as well as our reliance on things, such as technology, to the detriment of our survival. As more and more people are struck blind, it is difficult for the institutions we have set up to continue to support us. When the blindness spreads, there is no difference between the horrifying conditions of the asylum and the world outside.

Saramago’s epidemic is likened to the philosophy of ignorance. Not being able to see is much akin to not being able to think, and even those who retain their “sight” are capable of abusing others and abusing their power. The doctor’s wife sacrifices her freedom to follow her husband into the worst conditions, and when she is threatened, she kills another person. This is a decision she may never have made without the circumstances, but the fact remains that everyone is capable of doing unthinkable things as society begins to crumble.

The ending is one of hope that people everywhere will take a moment to account for their behavior during the epidemic and rebuild a new society based on true principles of humanity. They hope that everyone will see the world more clearly.

When disaster strikes, Saramago’s community is unable to continue to provide even the most basic needs, making it ironic that it is considered a developed society. It does not take long for institutions to dissolve, for people to die, and for new hierarchies to form based on power and circumstance. Those in the group led by the doctor’s wife manage to make it back to the apartment, but they are barely able to meet their own needs.

Saramago purposefully removes any references to a particular culture or city, and he names the characters only as monikers such as “doctor’s wife” rather than actual names. This gives the story a wider, more universal feeling as it could be anywhere at any time. The situation unfolds as it will, and he allows us to imagine that it is our own city. It allows us to understand our world and our nature just a bit better.