As with all of José Saramago’s fictional works, Blindness evolves like a present-day fable. The story begins with an event that marks the end of a fundamental concept of accepted reality, as the reader is confronted with a reality that is simultaneously absurd and plausible. The omnipresent and unnamed narrator describes fantastic and surreal scenes and occurrences. With such settings, the reader is forced to confront the basis for human existence.
The novel also elicits many questions from the reader. Are humans dependent upon systems of order? Is modern society actually based upon a weak or shaky foundation of social interaction, a foundation that can disappear when challenged by relatively minor events? The characters struggle to find meaning, at precisely the moment of greatest social change.
Blindness explores the fragility of human societies. It mimics how one problem can lead to a complete breakdown of social systems. The reader is spectator to the consequences of blind power ambitions and their inevitable consequences. In the end, however, one of Saramago’s literary traits comes into play: The new situation brings about a search for new ways of implementing the dignity of the human race. When forced to rely only upon each other, humans can and do reach out to one another. This new awareness of the importance of human dignity is revealed as almost spiritual in nature, and the novel contains hints of being an allegory about spiritual blindness and about humanity’s lack of compassion for strangers. Saramago uses a more direct and secular analogy in the novel. Blindness here involves a misinterpretation between the signifier and the signified. That is, persons in positions of authority are misreading, or not “seeing,” what is right before them.
The structure of Blindness is complex. The novel describes the most minor of settings and events in long sentences and paragraphs that often continue for pages at a time. Sentences are separated only by commas, and they lack colons, semicolons, hyphens, and quotation marks. It is often unclear who is speaking. Quotations are not separated by lines; instead, commas and capitalizations mark the first word of a new speaker. Saramago’s style demands that readers pay close attention to who is, or who might be, speaking. Indeed, in Blindness, this style is most effective because it requires the reader to navigate speech without the usual visible clues. Characters are not named; instead, they are referred to in vague descriptive terms, such as “the doctor’s wife.”
Irony is employed, too. For example, the blind doctor is an eye doctor, an ophthalmologist, who is helpless just when he is needed most. The doctor’s wife is the only one who can see, but she must hide this fact to be trusted by the others. She leads a group of internees in the asylum to sanity and, eventually, to safety, cohesiveness, and renewal. This inexactness of terminology reflects one of the author’s major themes: the recurring mystery of life’s impermanence.
Although Saramago rejects the use of proper nouns in many of his novels, in Blindness this anonymity reveals the impersonal nature of humankind in dealing with tragedy. The puzzling irony of the descriptive names of the characters illustrates the unimportance of individual identity: Saramago describes how the characters would be seen, but seen only by someone not blind. His characters include the girl with dark glasses, the boy with the squint, and the man with the black eye-patch.
The comical irony of characters who are described by their visible traits—which only the seeing can see—stands in stark contrast to the bleak and serious themes that Saramago presents in this work. Even more curious is the presence of the so-called dog of tears, named as such after licking away the tears of the doctor’s wife after she leads the others out of the asylum and discovers that life in the city is equally devastated. Saramago has used anonymous dogs in other works, such...
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