Blindness By Jose Saramago


Book Details

Book NameBlindness
AuthorJose Saramago
TranslatorGiovanni Pontiero
Item Weight 9.6 ounces
Hardcover352 pages
Product Dimensions8 x 5.3 x 1 inches
PublisherHarvest Books; First Edition (October 4, 1999)
Reading level14 and up
Best Sellers Rank#10,245 in Books
#155 in TV, Movie & Game Tie-In Fiction
#225 in Contemporary Literature & Fiction
#1,243 in Literary Fiction (Books)

A city is hit by an epidemic of “white blindness” which spares no one. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, but there the criminal element holds everyone captive, stealing food rations and raping women. There is one eyewitness to this nightmare who guides seven strangers-among them a boy with no mother, a girl with dark glasses, a dog of tears-through the barren streets, and the procession becomes as uncanny as the surroundings are harrowing. A magnificent parable of loss and disorientation and a vivid evocation of the horrors of the twentieth century, Blindness has swept the reading public with its powerful portrayal of man’s worst appetites and weaknesses-and man’s ultimately exhilarating spirit. The stunningly powerful novel of man’s will to survive against all odds, by the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature.


Blindness is the story of an unexplained mass epidemic of blindness afflicting nearly everyone in an unnamed city, and the social breakdown that swiftly follows. The novel follows the misfortune of a handful of unnamed characters who are among the first to be stricken with blindness, including “the doctor’s wife”, her husband, several of his patients, and assorted others, who are thrown together by chance. After a lengthy and traumatic quarantine in an asylum, the group bands together in a family-like unit to survive by their wits and by the unexplained good fortune that the doctor’s wife has escaped the blindness. The sudden onset and unexplained origin and nature of the blindness cause widespread panic, and the social order rapidly unravels as the government attempts to contain the apparent contagion and keep order via increasingly repressive and inept measures.

The first part of the novel follows the experiences of the central characters in the filthy, overcrowded asylum where they and other blind people have been quarantined. Hygiene, living conditions, and morale degrade horrifically in a very short period, mirroring the society outside.

Anxiety over the availability of food, caused by delivery irregularities, acts to undermine solidarity; and lack of organization prevents the internees from fairly distributing food or chores. Soldiers assigned to guard the asylum and look after the well-being of the internees become increasingly antipathetic as one soldier after another becomes infected. The military refuses to allow basic medicine to be delivered, which ensures that a simple infection becomes deadly. Fearing an imminent escape, soldiers shoot down a crowd of internees waiting for food delivery.

Conditions degenerate further as an armed clique gains control over food deliveries, subjugating their fellow internees and exposing them to violent assault, rape, and deprivation. Faced with starvation, internees battle each other and burn down the asylum, only to discover that the army has abandoned the asylum, after which the protagonists join the throngs of nearly helpless blind people outside who wander the devastated city and fight one another to survive.

The story then follows the doctor’s wife, her husband, and their impromptu “family” as they attempt to survive outside, cared for largely by the doctor’s wife, who can still see (though she must hide this fact at first). At this point, the breakdown of society is near total. Law and order, social services, government, schools, etc., no longer function. Families have been separated and cannot find one another. People squat in abandoned buildings and scrounge for food. Violence, disease, and despair threaten to overwhelm human coping. The doctor and his wife and their new “family” eventually make a permanent home in the doctor’s house and are establishing a new order to their lives when the blindness lifts from the city en masse just as suddenly and inexplicably as it struck.


The doctor’s wife

The doctor’s wife is the only character in the novel who does not lose her sight. This phenomenon remains unexplained throughout the novel. Unwilling to leave her husband to be interned, she lies to the government doctors and claims to be blind. As such, she is interned with the rest of the afflicted. Once inside, she attempts to help the compound organize, but she is increasingly unable to hold back the animality of the compound. When one ward begins withholding food and demanding that the women of other wards submit to being rap*d in return for food, she kills the leader of their ward. Once they escape the compound, she helps her group survive in the city. The doctor’s wife is the de facto leader of their small group, although in the end, she often serves their disabled needs and acts as a nurse to them.

The doctor

The doctor is an ophthalmologist stricken blind after treating a patient with what will come to be called “the white sickness”. The doctor is among the first to be quarantined along with his wife. Due to his medical expertise, he has a certain authority among those quarantined. Though, much of the doctor’s authority stems from his wife not having gone blind; she is able to see what is going on around the ward and relays what she sees to her husband. When the group from his ward finally escapes they end up traveling to and staying in the doctor and his wife’s apartment. Several of the other main characters had been visiting the doctor’s office when the epidemic begins to spread.

The girl with the dark glasses

The girl with the dark glasses is a former part-time prostitute who is struck blind while she is with a customer. She seemingly contracted the “white-blindness” while visiting the doctor due to conjunctivitis (hence the dark glasses). She is unceremoniously removed from the hotel and taken to be quarantined in the asylum. Once inside, she joins the small group of people who were contaminated at the doctor’s office. When the car thief gropes her on the way to the lavatory, she kicks him with a heeled shoe – giving him a wound from which he will eventually die. While inside, she also takes care of the boy with the squint, whose mother is nowhere to be found. At the end of the story, she and the old man with the black eye patch become lovers.

The old man with the black eye patch

The old man with the black eye patch is the last person to join the first ward. He brings with him a portable transistor radio that allows the internees to listen to the news. He is also the main architect of the failed attack on the ward of hoodlums hoarding the food rations. Once the group escapes the quarantine, the old man becomes the lover of the girl with the dark glasses.

The dog of tears

The dog of tears is a dog that joins the small group of blind people when they leave the quarantine. While he is mostly loyal to the doctor’s wife, he helps the whole group by protecting them all from packs of dogs who are becoming increasingly feral. He is called the dog of tears because he bonded to the group when he licked the tears off the face of the doctor’s wife.

The boy with the squint

The boy with the squint was a patient of the doctor’s, which is most likely how he became infected. He is brought to the quarantine without his mother and soon falls in with the group in the first ward. The girl with the dark glasses assumes a motherly role for him, as she takes care of him and ensures his safety.

The car thief

After the first blind man was struck blind in traffic, a car thief brought him home and, subsequently stole his car. Soon after he went blind, the car thief and the first blind man re-encounter one another in the quarantine, where they soon come to blows. They have no time to resolve their conflict, though, since the car thief is the first internee killed by the guards. He is gunned down while trying to ask the guards for medication for his infected leg.

The first blind man

The first man to go blind is struck blind in the middle of traffic, waiting at a stoplight. He is immediately taken home and then to the doctor’s office, where he infects all of the other patients and the doctor. He is one of the principal members of the first ward – the ward with all of the original internees. When the epidemic is finally over, he is the first person to regain his sight.

The first blind man’s wife

The wife of the first blind man goes blind soon after helping her husband to the quarantine. They are reunited by chance in the quarantine. Once inside, she also joins the first ward with the doctor and the doctor’s wife. When the ward of hoodlums begins to demand that the women sleep with them in order to be fed, the first blind man’s wife volunteers to go, in solidarity with the others.

The man with the gun

The man with the gun is the leader of the ward of hoodlums that seizes control of the food supply in the quarantine. He and his ward take the rations by force and threaten to shoot anyone who doesn’t comply with their orders. This ward extorts valuables from the other internees in exchange for food and when the “goods” (such as bracelets and watches run out) they begin to rape the women. He is later stabbed to death by the doctor’s wife.

The blind accountant

This man is not one of those afflicted by the “white sickness”—rather he has been blind since birth. He is the only one in the ward who can read and write braille and who knows how to use a walking stick. Additionally, he is the second in command of the man with the gun in the ward of hoodlums. When the doctor’s wife kills the man with the gun, the blind accountant takes the gun and tries to seize control but he is unable to rally support. He dies when one of the rape victims sets fire to the ward.

Editorial Reviews Review

In an unnamed city in an unnamed country, a man sitting in his car waiting for a traffic light to change is suddenly struck blind. But instead of being plunged into darkness, this man sees everything white, as if he “were caught in a mist or had fallen into a milky sea.” A Good Samaritan offers to drive him home (and later steals his car); his wife takes him by taxi to a nearby eye clinic where they are ushered past other patients into the doctor’s office. Within a day the man’s wife, the taxi driver, the doctor and his patients, and the car thief have all succumbed to blindness. As the epidemic spreads, the government panics and begins quarantining victims in an abandoned mental asylum–guarded by soldiers with orders to shoot anyone who tries to escape. So begins Portuguese author José Saramago’s gripping story of humanity under siege, written with a dearth of paragraphs, limited punctuation, and embedded dialogue minus either quotation marks or attribution. At first, this may seem challenging, but the style actually contributes to the narrative’s building tension, and to the reader’s involvement.In this community of blind people, there is still one set of functioning eyes: the doctor’s wife has affected blindness in order to accompany her husband to the asylum. As the number of victims grows and the asylum becomes overcrowded, systems begin to break down: toilets back up, food deliveries become sporadic; there is no medical treatment for the sick and no proper way to bury the dead. Inevitably, social conventions begin to crumble as well, with one group of blind inmates taking control of the dwindling food supply and using it to exploit the others. Through it all, the doctor’s wife does her best to protect her little band of blind charges, eventually leading them out of the hospital and back into the horribly changed landscape of the city.

Blindness is in many ways a horrific novel, detailing as it does the total breakdown in society that follows upon this most unnatural disaster. Saramago takes his characters to the very edge of humanity and then pushes them over the precipice. His people learn to live in inexpressible filth, they commit acts of both unspeakable violence and amazing generosity that would have been unimaginable to them before the tragedy. The very structure of society itself alters to suit the circumstances as once-civilized, urban dwellers become ragged nomads traveling by touch from building to building in search of food. The devil is in the details, and Saramago has imagined for us in all its devastation a hell where those who went blind in the streets can never find their homes again, where people are reduced to eating chickens raw and packs of dogs roam the excrement-covered sidewalks scavenging from corpses.

And yet in the midst of all this horror, Saramago has written passages of unsurpassed beauty. Upon being told she is beautiful by three of her charges, women who have never seen her, “the doctor’s wife is reduced to tears because of a personal pronoun, an adverb, a verb, an adjective, mere grammatical categories, mere labels, just like the two women, the others, indefinite pronouns, they too are crying, they embrace the woman of the whole sentence, three graces beneath the falling rain.” In this one-woman Saramago has created an enduring, fully developed character who serves both as the eyes and ears of the reader and as the conscience of the race. And in Blindness, he has written a profound, ultimately transcendent meditation on what it means to be human. –Alix Wilber

From Publishers Weekly

Brilliant Portuguese fabulist Saramago (The History of the Siege of Lisbon) has never shied away from the big games. His previous works have rewritten the history of Portugal, reimagined the life of Christ, and remodeled a continent by cleaving the Iberian peninsula from Europe and setting it adrift. Here, Saramago stalks two of our oldest themes in the tale of a plague of blindness that strikes an unnamed European city. At the novel’s opening, a driver sits in traffic, waiting for the light to change. By the time it does, his field of vision is white, a “milky sea.” One by one, each person the man encounters? the not-so-good Samaritan who drives him home, the man’s wife, the ophthalmologist, the patients waiting to see the ophthalmologist? is struck blind. Like any inexplicable contagion, this plague of “white sickness” sets off panic. The government interns the blind, as well as those exposed to them, in an abandoned mental hospital guarded by an army with orders to shoot any detainee who tries to escape. Like Camus, to whom he cannot help being compared, Saramago uses the social disintegration of people in extremis as a crucible in which to study the combustion of our vices and virtues. As order at the mental hospital breaks down and the contagion spreads, the depraved overpower the decent. When the hospital is consumed in flames, the fleeing internees find that everyone has gone blind. Sightless people rove in packs, scavenging for food, sleeping wherever they can. Throughout the narrative, one character remains sighted, the ophthalmologist’s wife. Claiming to be blind so she may be interned with her husband, she eventually becomes the guide and protector for an improvised family. Indeed, she is the reader’s guide and stand-in, the repository of human decency, the hero, if such an elaborate fable can have a hero. Even after so many factual accounts of mass cruelty, this most sophisticated fiction retains its peculiar power to move and persuade. Editor, Drenka Willen. (Sept.) FYI: Paperback editions of The History of the Siege of Lisbon and Baltasar and Blimunda will be issued simultaneously.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

To describe as an allegory this story of unnamed characters in an unnamed city who are struggling with an undiagnosed epidemic of “white blindness” is both too simple and too complex. Beyond any emblematic purpose, the characters act out life with all its paradoxes and hidden truths. Ultimately, the greater meaning here is the simple story of human frailty and community in the modern world. In searing prose, both complex and minimal, all this and nothing more is revealed. No wonder Saramago won the Nobel prize this year.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Less an allegory than a mature writer’s inspired characterization of human nature, this book opens with a driver being struck blind at a stoplight. Soon, so are his wife, the doctor who examines him, and the doctor’s other patients: a pretty young woman, a worn-out old man, and a young boy. The doctor’s wife retains her vision but claims to be blind so she can help the others, but she then has to witness the horrors of blind human nature as the government quarantines them in a mental hospital under armed guard. That cannot stop the disease from spreading, nor does being blind prevent human behavior from expressing itself. As in Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a hierarchy of terror arises behind closed doors as more blind arrive. They hoard and share, love and rape, fight, and heal. Eventually, the doctor’s group escapes and returns to his house, where the world starts to return to normal. Saramago’s novel deftly shows how vulnerable humans are, how connected, and how blind. Kevin Grandfield


Blindness, like all of Saramago’s work is rewarding for being challenging in narrative technique (artfully translated by longtime collaborator Giovanni Pontiero, who died putting on the finishing touches). Saramago switches tenses and points of view, his grammar is idiosyncratic, he frequently makes authorial asides, and he’s partial to page-long sentences encompassing various perspectives and time frames. “But he’s so dexterous in his literary machinations that the pieces come together into an existential jigsaw puzzle. “Saramago isn’t didactic…He’s humane. For better and for worse, duress is a powerful motivator, and generosity and altruism are ‘the two best traits in human nature,’ though selfishness and cruelty rear themselves nearly as often. Fellow-feeling, most of all, outlasts chaos and degradation, the arbitrary exigencies of existence….”Abounding in the perseverance and hope (and absurdity and horror) of everyday lives, Blindness is of the ages: profound by being elemental. It’s a major contribution to Saramago’s oeuvre. May he live to 100. He has more books to write.”

The Houston Chronicle, November 22, 1998

Blindness is the darkest and most concentrated of Saramago’s books. With a grim, sometimes monotonously repetitive accumulation of detail, he constructs what in some respects could be a circle of Dantean hell.

The Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review, Richard Eder

At the beginning of Blindness, the reader is tempted to search for and tease out the exact implications of a loss of sight, to understand precisely what sort of meanings Saramago’s white blindness suggests. The reader considers, mulls over, and discards a number of ideas: the book is a futuristic parable about AIDS or some other infectious disease; it presents a meditation on the contagious nature of ignorance (‘this must be the most logical illness in the world, the eye that is blind transmits the blindness to the eye that sees’); or it depicts a socio-political nightmare, the blind leading the blind being the surest path to mayhem…[yet]…Blindness resists single-minded interpretations. This is a brilliant exploration of the human conscience, offered in poetic and revelatory language.

Hungry Mind Review, Winter 1998-1999

The prose of Blindness is crystalline in the English translation by the late Giovanni Pontiero, and readers can easily catch its ironies, lyricism, and wry humor. In certain respects, though, the style proves daunting … but it means that like all books of real stature, Blindness requires undiluted time and attention…. a shattering work by a literary master.

The Boston Globe, Robert Taylor

There is no cynicism and there are no conclusions, just a clear-eyed and compassionate acknowledgment of things as they are, a quality that can only honestly be termed wisdom.

The New York Times Book Review, Andrew Miller

About the Author

JOSÉ SARAMAGO (1922–2010) was the author of many novels, among them Blindness, All the Names, Baltasar and Blimunda, and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. In 1998 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.