What is the purpose of Saramago's use of proverbs, folk sayings, and cliches throughout the novel?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Saramago has a dual purpose in using cliche's, folk sayings and proverbs in Blindness. The first part of his dual purpose is to illustrate the nature of his characters. The second part of his dual purpose is to illuminate his theme.

Illustrate the Nature of His Characters

His characters are acquainted with proverbs, folk sayings and cliches and they sometimes pepper their dialogue. Sometimes the narrator adds these sayings. Saramago illustrates the nature of his characters by showing that they have the guidance and wisdom from cultural truths to hand and even memorized yet do not live by the wisdom available to them in their culture.

These are not sayings of theologians or philosophers that are generally inaccessible to ordinary people. These are sayings past down through generations and made a part of everyday speech. Thus his characters have the means to be wise and rational if they but would.

Illuminate Primary Theme

Saramago's primary theme, the one he spoke about in interviews, is that rational human beings behave irrationally because they are blind to their own rationality and to their own subsequent irrationality.

This Blindness isn't real blindness, it's a blindness of rationality. We're rational beings but we don't behave rationally. If we did, there'd be no starvation in the world. (Saramago)

The scene toward the end of the story in which the Doctor's wife enters a church then tells the people gathered that the holy statues are all blind and they, too, cannot help the suffering, illustrates a significant part of what Saramago perceives of as blind irrationality.

In this scene, the Doctor's wife represents the action of a person who is not blind to her own rationality, who can see and act rationally, while the people gathered represent what Saramago perceives as the action of people who are blind to their own rationality, who therefore act irrationally.

Narrator and Quotations

In a tone of sorrow and regret, the narrator comments about humans' inability to see our own irrationality by saying:

[T]he good and evil resulting from our words and deeds go on apportioning themselves, one assumes in a reasonably uniform and balanced way, throughout all the days to follow, including those endless days, when we shall not be here to find out, to congratulate ourselves or ask pardon ....

Some relevant cliches, folk sayings and proverbs from the early part of the novel are these:

  • prescribing in the dark
  • it is true that the opportunity does not make the thief
  • you today, me tomorrow, so I'll help you
  • virtue always finds pitfalls on the extremely difficult path of perfection, but sin and vice are so favored by fortune
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