Blindness (novel)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Blindness (Ensaio sobre a cegueira, meaning Essay on Blindness) is a novel by Portuguese author José Saramago. It was published in Portuguese in 1995 and in English in 1997.


Plot summary

Blindness is the story of an unexplained mass epidemic of blindness afflicting nearly everyone in an unnamed city, and the social breakdown that swiftly follows. The novel follows the misfortunes of a handful of characters who are among the first to be stricken and centers around a doctor and his wife, several of the doctor’s patients, and assorted others, thrown together by chance. This group bands together in a family-like unit to survive by their wits and by the unexplained good fortune that the doctor’s wife has escaped the blindness. The sudden onset and unexplained origin and nature of the blindness cause widespread panic, and the social order rapidly unravels as the government attempts to contain the apparent contagion and keep order via increasingly repressive and inept measures.

The first part of the novel follows the experiences of the central characters in the filthy, overcrowded asylum where they and other blind people have been quarantined. Hygiene, living conditions, and morale degrade horrifically in a very short period, mirroring the society outside.

Anxiety over the availability of food, caused by delivery irregularities, act to undermine solidarity; and lack of organization prevents the internees from fairly distributing food or chores. Soldiers assigned to guard the asylum and look after the well-being of the internees become increasingly antipathetic as one soldier after another becomes infected. The military refuse to allow in basic medicines, so that a simple infection becomes deadly. Fearing a break out, soldiers shoot down a crowd of internees waiting upon food delivery.

Conditions degenerate further, as an armed clique gains control over food deliveries, subjugating their fellow internees and exposing them to rape and deprivation. Faced with starvation, internees do battle and burn down the asylum, only to find that the army has abandoned the asylum, after which the protagonists join the throngs of nearly helpless blind people outside who wander the devastated city and fight one another to survive.

The story then follows the doctor and his wife and their impromptu “family” as they attempt to survive outside, cared for largely by the doctor’s wife, who still sees (though she must hide this fact at first). The breakdown of society is near total. Law and order, social services, government, schools, etc., no longer function. Families have been separated and cannot find each other. People squat in abandoned buildings and scrounge for food; violence, disease, and despair threaten to overwhelm human coping. The doctor and his wife and their new “family” eventually make a permanent home and are establishing a new order to their lives when the blindness lifts from the city en masse just as suddenly and inexplicably as it struck.

There are many hints that the novel is an allegory about spiritual blindness and about humanity's lack of compassion for strangers.


Like most works by Saramago, the novel contains many long, breathless sentences in which commas take the place of periods. The lack of quotation marks around dialogue means that the speakers' identities (or the fact that dialogue is occurring) may not be immediately apparent to the reader. The lack of proper character names in Blindness is typical of many of Saramago's novels (e.g. All the Names or The Cave). The characters are instead referred to by descriptive appellations such as "the doctor's wife", "the car thief", or "the first blind man". Given the characters' blindness, some of these names seem sharply ironic ("the boy with the squint" or "the girl with the dark glasses").

The city afflicted by the blindness is never named, nor the country specified. Few definite identifiers of culture are given, which contributes an element of timelessness and universality to the novel. Some signs hint that the country is Saramago's homeland of Portugal: the main character is shown eating chouriço, a spicy sausage, and some dialogue in the original Portuguese employs the familiar "tu" second-person singular verb form (a distinction which does not exist in English).

Sequel and film adaptation

Saramago wrote a sequel to Blindness in 2004, titled Seeing (Ensaio sobre a lucidez, literal English translation Essay on lucidity), which has also been translated into English. The new novel takes place in the same unnamed country and features several of the same characters.

An English-language film adaptation of Blindness was directed by Fernando Meirelles. Filming began in July 2007 and stars Mark Ruffalo as the doctor and Julianne Moore as the doctor's wife. The film opened the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.


Following the increased notoriety of the novel upon the release of the 2008 film adaptation, the US National Federation of the Blind (NFB) criticized Saramago's work. In a banquet speech at the organization’s annual convention on July 4, 2008, in Dallas, Texas, NFB President Dr. Marc Maurer criticized the novel and its film adaptation as negatively portraying the blind.

A novel entitled "The Sight Sickness" by Christine Faltz Grassman, was published by Iuniverse in March, 2009. Written by a blind woman, it is a polemic "anti-sequel" to Saramago's book (ISBN 9780595531561), and contains Grassman's response to the age-old literal and figurative use of blindness in a negative manner in literature and other media.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Blindness (novel)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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