José Saramago’s eerie story of an epidemic in a contemporary city begins with the scene of a man sitting in a car at a traffic light. The light turns green but the car does not move, even when the drivers in the cars behind it begin honking their horns. The man has suddenly gone blind; his world has turned to a milky whiteness.
A passerby drives the blind man home. Later, the blind man’s wife returns and discovers her husband’s condition. She takes him to an eye doctor by taxi because the passerby has stolen the blind man’s car. Immediately upon arriving at the doctor’s office, the blind man is ushered in to see the doctor ahead of the other patients, who include a girl with dark glasses suffering from conjunctivitis, a young boy with a squint accompanied by his mother, and an old man with an eye patch over a hollow socket and a cataract in the remaining eye. The doctor is mystified by the sudden complete loss of sight and by a blindness of whiteness instead of the usual darkness.
The man who had stolen the car is suddenly overcome by the same white blindness that had stricken his victim. The girl with the dark glasses goes blind while having sex for money in a hotel room. The doctor loses his sight at home in the company of his wife and calls the Ministry of Health to warn of a possible epidemic. Others are infected by the strange eye disease.
The government, concerned about an apparently spreading plague, begins rounding up the sufferers and quarantining them in an abandoned mental hospital. When the police arrive to take the doctor away, the doctor’s wife jumps into the car and falsely proclaims that she has just gone blind in order to be allowed to go with her husband. Through the rest of the story, she will be the only central character with sight and ultimately the only person with sight, the only witness to the degradation of people in a sightless world. At the hospital, they meet the man who had gone blind in the car, the man’s wife, the car thief, the girl who had lost her vision in the hotel, and the boy with the squint who has been taken away from his mother. These people continue to be nameless, as well as sightless, as if their social identities had been stripped away along with their eyesight.
More people enter the hospital as more are affected by the epidemic, and the government rounds them up in a futile effort to contain the spreading affliction. The hospital is guarded by armed soldiers who have orders to shoot anyone who comes too near the surrounding walls. The soldiers themselves keep going blind, however, and have to be replaced by others. Inside the hospital, conditions deteriorate because the sightless are unable to clean themselves or their surroundings adequately. When the frightened soldiers open fire on some of the internees, the others are slow to pick up the bodies, so that the place is infected with the dead as well as with excrement. This theme of uncleanliness runs throughout the novel, with pollution—both physical and moral—presented as a consequence of lack of vision.
The only blind internees who are able to organize themselves effectively are members of a gang headed by one man who has managed to smuggle a gun into the hospital. The gang takes control of the food brought in intermittently by the military. The gang members force the other internees to pay for food. First, the others have to surrender everything they have of value. Then the women in the various barracks of the hospital must submit to sex with the ruthless men in order to purchase food for their barracks. Without sight, the only social order possible is of the cruelest and most exploitative character.
The doctor’s wife stabs the leader of the gang to death with a pair of scissors and another woman sets fire to the gang’s barracks. The fire spreads to the entire hospital and the blind flee, hoping the soldiers will not open fire. The soldiers are all gone, however. The doctor’s wife leads the small band, her husband, the girl with the dark glasses, the first blind man and his wife, the boy with the squint, and the old man with the patch over one eye, back to the city. Civilization has ended. Everyone has gone blind. People cannot find their way home, so they stay in whatever shelter they manage to locate. The grocery shelves are ransacked by sightless hands groping for food. Corpses lie in the streets, half devoured by dogs and other animals. People defecate everywhere.
The doctor’s wife becomes the guide and caretaker for her little band, finding them food and leading them to her home. With this one person who can see, the group is able to...
(The entire section is 1898 words.)