Renowned author Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” In our series Book Reports for Adults, we hope to make up for all those parents who turned on Seinfeld instead.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

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Blindness by José Saramago

Why You Should Read Blindness: Because “inside us there is something that has no name, and that something is what we are.”

Book Size: Medium, but the prose is pretty dense. Saramago is known for long, ragged sentences just barely stitched together with commas, and none of the characters identify themselves or take turns in conversation. It’s a bit like being blind.

The Book Report, And What I Learned:

The Plot, Mostly Spoiler-Free:

Once upon a time, in an unnamed city in an unnamed country, an unnamed man waiting for a red light to turn green went suddenly blind.

At first, it seemed like nothing: just another case of exhaustion or cataracts or too much sun. But then the man who took him home went blind. The wife who opened the door went blind. The doctor who examined him went blind. So did every patient waiting in his office. So did every person they passed on the way there. So did the soldiers who came to put him in quarantine, long after quarantine would do any good.

Within days, our unnamed city in its unnamed country has a true plague on its hands. The blindness is sudden and complete. It passes from person to person over staggering distances, almost as if it were spread by line of sight. It is impossible to study, because anyone who looks too closely at one of the blind goes blind themselves. And it is irreversible.

So, what happens to a country when everyone living in it goes blind in the same week?

Some of the consequences are obvious: people get hurt, cars are abandoned, children are lost. Some of the consequences are the kind you’d expect if you expect the worst: there is panic, there is disorder, there is violence. People go sick and hungry. Society, or even the illusion of it, grinds to a halt.

More profound than the chaos and fear, though, is the way that living in a world where no one can see their faces or read their names changes people. Without the watchful eyes of others to stop them, many become monsters. Many collapse into puddles of jelly. But a few —just a few— discover hidden stockpiles of courage and kindness they never knew that they possessed.

Blindness follows a small band of survivors, some of the first to be infected, who struggle to survive as society falls into pieces around them. Besides their determination to protect one another, the group also has a precious secret weapon: for reasons no one understands, one of them can still see…

 

The Characters:

 
The doctor’s wife. The wife of the ophthalmologist who examined the first victim, the doctor’s wife somehow kept her sight while her husband and every other person who came in contact with him lost theirs. In fact, she seems to be completely immune to the plague, for reasons that are never explained. A mild, practical, middle-aged woman when the lights are on, she becomes a hero in the darkness, full of courage and ingenuity no one believed she possessed, least of all herself.
 
The girl with the dark glasses. A beautiful woman who hates the fact that will always be the first thing people mention when they describe her, the girl with the dark glasses is a part-time prostitute who lost her sight halfway through a session with a client and wound up lost and panicked in an unfamiliar hotel. The new world is full of dangers for a beautiful girl, but it also allows her to explore new parts of herself and find great reserves of kindness, self-sacrifice, and love that her beauty had always overshadowed.
 
The man with the gun. The initial victims of the plague are quarantined in an abandoned mental hospital, where they are left to their own devices by soldiers who deliver food and shoot anyone who tries to escape. Cut off in their own world, the wards are ruled by the law of the jungle and the man with the gun becomes a king, extorting money and sex from the other victims through violence and starvation. Probably never a great dude to begin with, but in the new world, his inner demons get out and go waterskiing.

 

The Themes and Ideas:

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. People say that civilized society is only three missed meals away from barbarism. In Blindness, it’s one missed traffic light.

The story of Blindness is really the story of what happens when a civilization falls apart. Mostly, it’s grim; leadership vanishes, the strong prey on the weak, and most of the people who pictured themselves stepping up to be the great hero or great humanitarian (not that kind) of the apocalypse wind up running, hiding, and wetting themselves instead.

There are some authors who would take a disaster of this kind and turn it into the story of the triumph of humanity: how we rose from the darkness once to become something worthwhile, and will do it again, and again, as many times as we have to. And to some extent, Blindness is about that. We watch our little band of characters form a family; a group that protects one another, shares with one another, looks out for one another, and, as a result, survives, which shows that at its core, humanity does at least have something going for it.

Mostly, though, Saramago is interested in laying down some harsh truths about how quickly things can go wrong, how bad they can get, and just how deeply the patterns of brutality and survival have been carved into all of our brains, no matter how many layers of nice clothes and record collections and good educations we use to try to cover them up.
 
 
Who you are in the dark. Or, actually, in the intense white light, which is the form the blindness takes.

I mentioned that once the blindness struck, many people who thought of themselves as heroes and leaders (or, hell, as good people) find themselves throwing everything they believe in out the window in the scuffle to save themselves. The most remarkable thing, though — the craziest part of this already crazy book — is that some of them don’t. Just as the blindness shows us the ugliest side of human civilization, it sometimes shows us the best in individual people — all sorts of things they had going on inside them that no one knew about.

The doctor’s wife, who becomes our most important protagonist, is a perfect example. She starts off the book as a rather shy middle-aged lady who barely gets a few sentences’ worth of discussion in a chapter focused on her husband’s futile attempts to pick apart the plague. But blink once, and she’s using her sight in little ways to help make sure that the people close to her are fed and clean. Blink again, and she’s a leader, protecting her little band from harm and taking gory revenge on people who hurt them. By the end of the book, she’s a hero — not just because she’s the two-eyed woman in the land of the blind, but because of the brave, clever, self-sacrificing person that she always was, even if the world didn’t know it.

In the same way, other characters learn things about themselves by going blind that they never would have had the chance to find out without the plague. Some discover cowardice, weakness, and hatred, yet others find better things. Compassion. Dignity. Regret. Connection. Love.

To some extent, these characters learn these things because society has collapsed and their lives have changed so much. More than that, though, it’s the freedom of not being seen — of not being immediately filed away as beautiful or uneducated or disabled or rich or poor or big or small — that lets them find out about parts of themselves that those labels had always blotted out before.


 

TL;DR:

Kind of like Day of the Triffids, but heavier on poetry and meditation on the human heart and lighter on the Cold War and commas.
 

Side Effects of Reading Blindness May Include:

Blindness, sight, general grossness, and a compulsion to take your clothes off and go daaaaaancing in the rain.
 

Part to Quote So People Will Think You’ve Read It:

“You never know beforehand what people are capable of, you have to wait, give it time, it’s time that rules, time is our gambling partner on the other side of the table and it holds all the cards of the deck in its hands, we have to guess the winning cards of life, our lives.”

 

Further Reading:

If you liked…
 
…books about plagues and disasters, try Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, especially The Year of the Flood (my personal favorite). It’s told in a very different style than Blindness — more humor, more specifics, and a Riddler-level pun problem — but it asks many of the same questions about how society functions and what it means to be human.
 
…books about societies collapsing, try Ishmael Beah’s autobiography A Long Way Gone,, which tells the story of his childhood in Sierra Leone both before and after the situation there went directly to hell without passing Go or collecting $200. Trust me: the only thing more terrifying than reading about a society in shambles is reading about how two weeks before it happened, the author’s biggest worry was planning dance routines to “Ice, Ice Baby.”
 
…books about the rag and bone shop of the human heart, try Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter, which tells the story of a young man reevaluating his life while deciding whether or not to take his brain-damaged newborn son off of life support. Like Blindness, it has a lot to say about the decisions we make where no one can see us, and what they say about us. It’s also the first book written by a Japanese person to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, so you can leave it lying around your apartment and look, like, super smart.