The fragility of society
One of the most predominant themes in Blindness is the fragility of society. This is to say that the interpersonal web of interactions in which we live on a daily basis is actually quite tenuous, even though it seems stable. It is so fragile, in fact, that the absence of one faculty, sight in this case, can cause the whole thing to unravel. In the novel, this consequence can be seen on two levels.
First, the interpersonal web of interactions unravels. People suddenly become unable to interact as they did before and this precipitates a change for the worse. Take for example the treatment of blind internees by the soldiers who are ostensibly there to guard them. On several occasions they are killed almost indiscriminately as is the case with the killing of the car thief who is trying to ask for medicine for his infected leg. An attachment of soldiers also massacres a group of blind coming to claim their food. The language used to describe the blind in these scenes is inhuman and the soldiers react to them as if they were not humans, but rather animals or monsters of some kind. The first step of this societal unraveling is the exclusion of the blind from the category of human. This is not the only example -- the blind treat each other in ways that would be unheard of in a sighted context. To take just two examples, the complete decay of the familial unit, as is exemplified by the boy with the squint who is forever separated from his mother. He cannot be the only child in this position and represents the decay of the kinship unity that is often considered the minimum unity of society. We can also look at the minimum criteria of health and sanitation that is disregarded in the wards as soon as it becomes untenable or difficult to maintain these standards.
Secondly, the larger scale of infrastructure of society breaks down, such as transportation networks, government and media. These are the infrastructural elements on which the web of interpersonal relationships depends to live in a modernized society, but all fall apart as soon as sight is lost. In terms of traffic, it is easy to see that as soon as everyone is struck blind it become increasingly dangerous to drive or even to be near cars. The government and financial systems also become more and more unstable, but mostly in terms of a pervasive crisis of confidence. After the government has changed strategy several times and begins patently lying to the people, it becomes clear that hope in them is entirely ill-placed. The runs on the banks also reveal the general crisis in confidence that occurs in a world obviously tipping over the edge.
Blindness presents a relatively pessimistic view of human nature although there are some points of optimism. Human nature is presented as being no different, fundamentally, from animal nature – self-serving and ultimately geared towards mere survival. Its main point of divergence is the fact that humans can think of more complicated structures of exploitation. Things that we normally consider to be signs of human dignity are jettisoned first. Elementary things such as hygiene and care for our family are made obsolete. In the example of hygiene, it first becomes logistically difficult – one simply cannot find the lavatory on time. Then, it becomes a matter of knowing that no one can see you transgress these societal norms and thus cannot reprimand you. The same happens with the care of others. At first it is a matter of not being logistically able to find them, then comes the realization that they may be a burden to your personal survival. These examples argue for a human nature that needs the corrective of societal pressure to contain its "natural" state; raw human nature is essentially animal nature.
Human nature in Blindness is, in fact, worse than animal nature. Take, for example, the scheme that the ward of hoodlums comes up with wherein they have the right to rape the women of the other wards in exchange for food. While the sexual interactions of animals are certainly different than ours, we would be hard pressed to find an animal group that functioned with this degree of calculated exploitation. Moreover, this situation cannot be solved by communication, but only by the murder of the leader of that group but the complete extermination of the rest of the ward.
All of this pessimism, though, is counterbalanced by the shows of solidarity of the group. This can be seen mainly through the actions of the doctor's wife and the girl with the dark glasses. The girl with the dark glasses volunteers to give up her own rations of food to give to the little boy and promises to leave the group out of love for the old man. The doctor's wife serves as mother for the entire group, she feeds them and clothes them and, when necessary, defends them with force. This last thing, though, could be construed as the actions of someone who has not been animalized yet, because she retains her sight.
One of the subthemes of Blindness is the modification of gender roles. This can be seen both in the trading of women for food in the quarantine as well as the roles of the doctor and his wife in the group.
One of the most striking occurrences in the novel is the trading of women for food that occurs in the quarantine. This is, in a lot of ways, the climax (or the nadir) of society. This is the event that signals that everything has broken down. Interestingly enough, the efficiency of the food delivery is partially commended here, cautioning about the dehumanizing effects of sacrificing personal well-being for an efficient social configuration. This system, however, is doubly efficient because it results not only in the distribution of food in an orderly way, but it also concentrates the suffering in one group, the women of the quarantine. It is this mode of social configuration that the doctor's wife is able to shift by murdering the man with the gun. In many ways, the rule by rape policy of the man with the gun is based on the assumption that women are always weaker than men. This assumption is based, however, on a certain set of faculties, faculties that are different in the situation of the blind.
Blindness is also, in many ways, a meditation on the many different kinds of blindness. The doctor says at the end of the book that he doesn't believe that they never went blind: they were just as blind before. This is to say that it took their physical blindness to let them see their more pernicious forms of blindness.
One kind of blindness that predates the "white sickness" is fighting, or disagreeing. The doctor points out as much at one point in the quarantine, "fighting has always been a kind of blindness." The doctor is also the biggest proponent of organization, he tries to organize the people in the quarantine and it is he who dismisses the blind speech-givers for not talking about organization. Ultimately it will be organization that keeps them from becoming animals. Organizing, however, require seeing, not just sight but understanding another person's position. The white sickness just makes visible this inability or lack of desire to see another person's point of view.
Another kind of blindness made visible by the "white sickness" is the blindness to the fragility of society and the benefits of civilization. Those stricken by the white sickness are essentially thrown into a completely savage situation. They are, in many ways, worse off than animals because they do not know how to cope with this situation that is completely new to them. In this situation, any piece of civilization is a luxury to them and takes on a completely new importance. Take for example, the washing of the body of the rape victim who dies in the quarantine. The women wash her body and their own to distinguish themselves from animals. A glass of water also takes on a profound importance for these people who find themselves in a situation with absolutely no potable water. Their blindness makes them able to see what a miracle these small things are.
Memory and History
A central question through Blindness is: What will become of the human race? Is it possible to speak of humanity if there is no memory or no history.
One of the central ways in which this issue comes up is with regards to the writer who is living in the house of the first blind man. He tells the doctor's wife that he has been writing even if no one can read it. We are led to believe that he is doing this not only to communicate who he is to others, but also to make sure that he does not forget who he is. This is why he tells the the doctor's wife not to lose herself, he does not want her to forget who she is. When the first blind man asks him his name, he says that it doesn't matter; since no one will ever read anything he wrote, he may as well not exist. This also brings up the question of the future. Is it possible to have a future without a past? Better said, would anyone do anything if they didn't think that anyone would remember it? We can see the immediate effect that this has on morality in the quarantine. People begin by violating relatively low-level social norms such as defecating on the ground, until they are violating high-level norms such as rape-prohibition and murder. It would be doubtful that these things would be perpetrated if there was someone who saw and who remembered. In the case of the man with the gun in the quarantine, it turns out that someone was watching and he pays the price for his transgression.
There are several debates in the novel as to the nature of the soul. The doctor regards the eyes to be the place most likely to house the soul, and thus going blind to be akin to losing one's soul. The old man with the eye patch seems to regard the mind as more important whereas the girl with the dark glasses asserts that the soul, by its very nature cannot be named.
The doctor says on several occasions that the eyes are the most probable residence of the soul, if such a thing exists. Thus, for the doctor, the loss of sight is the equivalent of damnation. This is supported by the many references to the similarity of the world of the blind to Dante's inferno. The smell of the quarantine and the smell of the supermarket store room filled with dead bodies are particularly potent. The doctor's belief is also clearly supported by the abysmal situation that the world is thrown into, a situation for which there seems to be no recourse, when they lose their sight. How long would they remain recognizable as human at all if they continue on this course?
The old man with the eye patch thinks that there is no such thing as a soul, only a mind. This mind, of course, is altered by the blindness, but not in any drastic way. Thus, humanity is basically unchanged by the blindness. The main change from the old man's point of view is that people now do not need a veil of civilization to hide their nature. While the inability to see is a big problem, the bigger and maybe more fundamental problem is that people do not need to be responsible for their actions, since no one can see. Thus, for the old man, the blindness does not alter the soul or the mind, just sets it free with horrible results.
The girl with the dark glasses has a different take on the problem of the soul. The girl with the dark glasses has an obstinate belief in the humanity of human beings. Nothing we can do or say can take this away. Small moments of humanity in the plot support her point of view; the solidarity of the group of women in the quarantine and the old woman who honors her promise until the end.
An important theme in blindness is the nature of disease. The "white sickness" is a different kind of disease in that it disables the infected without killing them. This is partially why it is so rampant; in most epidemic situations, the diseased die off and eliminate themselves as possible sources of contamination. This unique situation poses several problems for the way that we normally view disease.
The first question that the "white sickness" brings to mind is the adequacy of our definition of disease. Usually we think of disease as being something which inflicts pain, discomfort or death. Pain or discomfort, though, is usually what drives one to the doctor in the first place. In the case of the "white sickness," there is no pain. The infected are not even truly "blind" in the traditional sense, since they can see a cloud of whiteness around them. We can see, then, that our definition of disease would not be adequate to describe the phenomenon of the white sickness. It is also to be noted that disease is most often thought of as being a deviation from the normal. The question then arises, though, as to what happens when the normal shifts so radically. Usually this situation is avoided, since the diseased eventually die. In this case of the "white sickness," though, this does not happen, meaning that blind essentially becomes the new normal, which accounts for the isolation of the doctor's wife.
Another problem raised by the "white sickness" is the effectiveness of our technology in the face of a disease which cripples our ability to use that technology. This is seen in the novel, when the great medical minds are called upon to discuss the disease and they are, in turn, struck blind. The uselessness of the doctor's instruments also makes clear the contingency of our technology. These technologies that we rely upon are useless without someone to be able or know how to utilize them -- a fact that we forget until it is too late.
Blindness Essays and Related Content
- Blindness: Major Themes
- Blindness: Essays
- Blindness: Questions
- Blindness: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Jose Saramago: Biography
- Blindness Summary
- About Blindness
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Quotes and Analysis
- Summary and Analysis of Part I
- Summary and Analysis of Part II
- Summary and Analysis of Part III
- Summary and Analysis of Part IV
- Summary and Analysis of Part V
- Summary and Analysis of Part VI
- Summary and Analysis of Part VII
- Summary and Analysis of Part VIII
- Summary and Analysis of Part IX
- Summary and Analysis of Part X
- Summary and Analysis of Part XI
- Summary and Analysis of Part XII
- Summary and Analysis of Part XIII
- Summary and Analysis of Part XIV
- Summary and Analysis of Part XV
- Summary and Analysis of Part XVI
- Summary and Analysis of Part XVII
- The Blind Dictator: The Political Fiction of José Saramago's Blindness
- Related Links on Blindness
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources