Chaos, Perseverance, Redemption: José Saramago’s “Blindness”

Cars line up at a traffic signal while their drivers wait for the light to turn green. When it does, one car does not move. Horns honk, epithets are muttered, drivers waiting behind the stationary car finally get out to investigate, then pound on the driver’s side window.

There, they behold a man waving his arms and turning his head side to side. Then they open his door to hear him exclaim, “I am blind.”

So begins “Blindness,” the late Portuguese writer José Saramago’s powerful, wholly original 1995 novel that explores a dystopian world in which blindness descends first on the driver depicted above but in short order engulfs all but one other inhabitant of an unnamed country at an unspecified, though modern time in human history.

At base, the hearty band of seven people we follow through to the story’s conclusion stand as a towering—if humbled to the nth degree—testament to human solidarity and perseverance.

Notable, too, is that all the characters remain unnamed, Saramago using descriptors for them throughout—“the doctor,” “the doctor’s wife,” “the girl with dark glasses.”

The clear implication: these people in this country represent the entire, becoming-blind world.

Terrifyingly, the blindness descends on everyone (save the doctor’s wife, wherein lies its own tale) with great suddenness, most always in the presence of an already blind person, leading authorities to deduce it is highly contagious.

Drastic measures are thus called for to try to limit its spread, including an immediate quarantine of all those already blinded and those with whom the blind have interacted.

Parallels with our own time? But of course, as in this line, too, when enough government officials still had their sight to offer the following:

“On the second day there was some talk of a reduction in new cases…and this led the government to announce at once that it was reasonable to suppose that the situation would soon be under control.”



Meanwhile, authorities had hastily opened an abandoned mental hospital to where the blind and their potentially infected contacts are shepherded and placed in separate, locked wards, neither group permitted even the most minimal contact with the outside world.

With contagion fear running rampant, a military unit guards the inmates under draconian conditions that involve shoot-to-kill orders for a variety of infractions, no matter how innocent. Sleeping arrangements for the quarantined are army-style, but there are not enough cots. (Plainly, the government had been caught without a pandemic response plan firmly in place…)

The confusion is only heightened by an appalling lack of sanitary facilities, no medical care, and food provisions that are left in bags by soldiers in a kind of no-man’s land of the compound, “social distance” run amok as the guards fear contamination from inmates.

Dehumanization ensues. A few blind emissaries from the larger group must grope their way to the food bags three times a day under the verbal direction of guards who bark at them from a distance all the while. (“Come forward, come forward…move over to the right, your right, your right, fools!”)

Things only get worse from there—much worse, actually.

For one thing, the soldiers eventually abandon their posts because they, like all the rest of the world, soon go blind themselves. This leaves the central characters to battle their way out of the compound against a violent, voracious band from another ward that has subjugated them and taken control of their food supply.

A truly harrowing few pages describing the transactions leading up to the ultimate battle make for tough reading by any measure.

But lest you think you can’t run fast enough away from what might appear to be one of the darkest novels in literary history, it should also be said that “Blindness” is a brilliant, almost hypnotically readable work that projects an understated but dogged grace from the handful of main characters that we follow and get to know from its first pages.

The whole human drama is here, in extremis. The good and the bad, the capricious and the methodical, the woeful, the wary and the wise, the generous and the hard-hearted.

The human, the all-too-human, the sub-human.

Also bearing mention: the incredibly adaptable survivalists that all living things are, looking to fulfill their genetic programs to flourish as best they can. And in the case of humans, an ultimately spiritual overlay that has them sifting through their experience and contemplating what, if anything, it means.



Sight being so fundamental to most all life, the almost inevitable breakdown of social and political order with a suddenly sightless population creates a vacuum that oppressors have an easier time stepping into with their hard, sure hands than do good people with their hands open, groping to join it with others.

But grope the good people do, against monumental odds. The assertion and maintenance of human dignity—and its slippery slope down to the animal selves we are at the very base of our being—is a haunting theme underscoring nearly every page of “Blindness.”

The protagonists are helpless against the loss of basic sanitation, no one escaping the stench that they are and have inadvertently stepped into in a world with scant if any running water or functioning toilets. Here is the doctor, having negotiated a bathroom journey:

He knew he was dirty, dirtier than he could ever remember having been in his life. There are many ways of becoming an animal, he thought, this is just the first of them.  

As the doctor and everyone else soon learns, mishaps that initially occur to everyone’s embarrassment soon become just the reality of everyday life, the bar for what constitutes personal hygiene progressively lowered as people come to accept they simply can’t be who they previously were.

Or can they?

At base, the hearty band of seven people we follow through to the story’s conclusion stand as a towering—if humbled to the nth degree—testament to human solidarity and perseverance.

Saramago, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature three years after this tale’s publication, romanticizes not one stitch of it in his unflinching fidelity to the spectrum of human tragedy, personality and behavior. But neither does he turn away from what makes us fully, most expansively human.

This includes the relationships we cultivate and need, along with the inner resources we come to learn are far deeper than we could ever have thought, and which we rely on to help pull each other through.

In a world turned upside down, co-dependency takes on a different meaning as a fundamental fact and requirement of existence. We need each other, plain as day. Not in a way that makes individuals weaker, but quite the opposite.

Yet we are often stubbornly, tragically blinded to that fact, as we are to so much else.

There are many forms of blindness, after all, not all of them sudden, or even having to do with eyes and retinas and such.

So too, are there deeper visions and gifts than mere sight, a premise that Saramago probes to shattering, ultimately redemptive effect in this uncommon tale.


In case you weren’t among the nearly 38 million people who have thus far viewed last Sunday’s Easter Concert by Mr. Bocelli, here’s a more than worthy snippet…


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8 comments to Chaos, Perseverance, Redemption: José Saramago’s “Blindness”

  • kirkthill  says:

    I will have to read this. This reminds me of what I consider one of the best Sci Fi movies: The Day of the Triffids 1962, (There is a remake and it sucks.) The original is the template for the majority of Sci Fi movies to follow, ie. An outside force invading, causing the uniting of the world, and Science vs Military/Political Powers. There are so many parallels to today’s situation.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks much for the tip, Kirk, I will see if i can track that down. SciFi is not generally in my orbit, though I do know the genre does a remarkable job with apocalyptic scenarios. This book had me thinking a lot about Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” which I almost included some discussion of—I may just pick it up another time. If you’re not familiar with that, it is exceedingly dark, but like “Blindness,” a pretty much hypnotic read.

      • kirkthill  says:

        I did not like “The Road,” although I could not put the book down. I was always looking for the “good” part to happen. “The Day of the Triffids” is, of course, silly comparted to the SciFi of today, but when I was 13 years old it changed me. It also made me realize that sometimes the answer is right in front of your nose, (can’t see the forest for the trees).

        • Andrew Hidas  says:

          Kirk, that may just be one of the best, most complimentary things one could possibly say about a book: “I did not like it, although I could not put it down.” Yes, McCarthy gives us precious little to hang our hopeful hats on, though he does seem to (grudgingly) offer a narrow ray of it at the story’s end. I think I read him more for the incredible, driven quality of his prose than anything else, galloping right along like the horses he wrote that book about once…

  • Mark T. Davis  says:

    Thanks Drew, a wonderful precis on this book. I have not thought of the current climate before in quite this way but it seems to me that there is a prevailing blindness on the hard core alt right and a strange and growing blindness in the GOP as a whole. Which of course raises the questions of blind spots for all of us.

    I found myself, yesterday, in preaching, inverting the idea that seeing is believing. I think quite the opposite, we believe and then we see. I can’t make sense of the present blindness at all, other than, the clear demonstration of dogma that has blinded us.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Strikes me there are a few different layers to this prevailing blindness you reference on the hard right, Mark. Perhaps we have to differentiate between the common voting masses who seem to have become convinced in their bones that Trump is the proverbial second coming who will lead them to the Promised Land, and then the far more cynical propagandists (e.g. Alex Jones & Rush Limbaugh) and legislators (McConnell/Graham/Rubio) who see right through Trump’s con but make their deal with the devil in pursuit of their own personal ends.

      The latter group is loathsome, of course, but the question is, can the former group, comprised greatly of regular, mostly nice people, among whom are friends, neighbors and family members of all of us, ever find their way back to the mainstream conservatism that is basically defunct now, buried under decades of anti-government propaganda, religious fundamentalism, and low tax mania that doesn’t even benefit them and creates prosperity only for the already wealthy? This seems to comprise a fairly locked-in 40% of the population that shows no signs of changing its convictions anytime soon—the “blindness” seems pervasive and thorough.

      On the other end, seems the Democrats and modern liberalism reflect a distinct split between their moderate and more radical/progressive wings, and there are concerns about whether the moderates who won this round with Biden can bring along the progressives Sanders & Warren who lost. Need some “Big Tent” rapprochement to make that happen. Where is there a similar split in the Republican Party? There, the moderates are wholly marginalized and few in number, while the radical rightists reign supreme. This in itself is a very radical development. Can it be changed? Is the near psychosis represented by Trump enough to finally crack it up, or only further reinforce it?

      Meanwhile, oh God, epistemology! If believing before seeing is the dominant mode of thought in a country or culture (50%+1 of the population), are we all sunk? Or perhaps, as long as we maintain a commitment to compromise, maybe we can still live with our biases coloring what we “see,” but still manage to govern in the name of actually getting something done?

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Like Kirk, COVID -19 brings to mind several Sci-fi films among them War of the Worlds, Day of the Triffids and The Andromeda Strain. While these films deal with pandemic-like events, all the result of some sort of extraterrestrial inference (meteor shower, satellite crash and Martian attack), fear dominates everything (CHAOS). However, Hollywood’s antidotes reside in simplicity like saltwater, low Ph blood levels and common human pathogens. Of course, at its heart, is an individual’s desire to survive (PERSEVERANCE). Hopefully from now on the powers that be will appreciate how global connectivity and cooperation are the lights at the end of the tunnel. Peace among cultures would be the ultimate takeaway (REDEMPTION). Defunding WHO, dissolving crucial governmental agencies, withdrawing from international treaties designed to clean-up the environment and scapegoating other nations are insanity squared.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Robert, there was a dark-humored headline in the Times this morn reflecting the alt-right fueled “protest” movement that has perverted the legitimate concerns about the economic damage wrought by the virus and morphed it into something yet again partisan, divisive and faux “patriotic”: “Protesting for the Freedom to Catch the Coronavirus.” I’d add that phenomenon to your memorable phrase of “insanity squared,” which I’ll try my best to remember to attribute to you whenever I use it in the future…

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