Blindness (novel)

Blindness (novel)

Infobox Book |
name = Blindness
title_orig = Ensaio sobre a ceguera
translator = Giovanni Pontiero

image_caption = 1999 Harvest paperback edition cover
author = José Saramago
cover_artist =
country = Portugal
language = Portuguese
series =
genre = Novel
publisher = The Harvill Press
release_date = 1995 "(Portuguese)"
October 1997 "(English)"
media_type = Print (Hardcover)
pages = 288 pp
isbn = ISBN 1-86046-297-9
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"Blindness" ( _pt. Ensaio sobre a cegueira, meaning "Essay on Blindness") is a novel by Portuguese author José Saramago. It was published in Portuguese in 1995 and in English in 1997. It is one of his most famous novels, along with "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ" and "Baltasar and Blimunda".

Plot summary

"Blindness" is the story of an unexplained mass epidemic of blindness afflicting nearly everyone in one (unnamed) city, and the social breakdown that swiftly follows. The novel follows the misfortunes of a handful of characters who are among the first to be stricken and centers around a doctor and his wife, several of the doctor’s patients, and assorted others, thrown together by chance. This group bands together in a family-like unit to survive by their wits and by the (also unexplained) good fortune that the doctor’s wife is, as far as we know, the only individual who 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, act 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 refuse to allow in basic medicines, so that a simple infection becomes deadly. Fearing a break out, soldiers shoot down a crowd of internees waiting upon food delivery.

Conditions degenerate further, as an armed clique gains control over food deliveries, subjugating their fellow internees and exposing them to rape and deprivation. Faced with starvation, internees do battle and burn down the asylum, only to find 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 and his wife and their impromptu “family” as they attempt to survive outside, cared for largely by the doctor’s wife, who still sees (though she must hide this fact). 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 each other. 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 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.

Major themes

Original research|date=September 2008More than simply commenting on the basest facets of human nature as they emerge in a crisis of epidemic (as can also be seen in Albert Camus's "The Plague", P.D. James's "The Children of Men" and, perhaps more notably, John Wyndham's 1951 novel "The Day of the Triffids", where most of the population is also blinded), "Blindness" shows the deep humanity of those who are forced to rely on one another when their natural senses have left them. The white glare of the blindness illuminates the perceptions of the main characters, and the tale becomes not only a record of the physical survival of the blind masses, but also of their spiritual lives and the dignity to which they cling. "Blindness" also questions the notion of humanity, as characters repeatedly make compromises in what they consider civility and increasingly degrade themselves hygienically and socially.


Like most works by Saramago, the novel is written in long sentences, with scant punctuation. Sentences can be half a page long and occasionally longer, and the lack of quotation marks around dialogue means it is not always possible to tell who is speaking.

Also typical of Saramago, rather than names the characters are referred to by descriptive appellations such as "the doctor's wife", "the car thief", or "the girl with the dark glasses". Given the blindness they face, some of these names are sharply ironic ("the boy with the squint"), as is perhaps the fact that the doctor is an eye doctor. The city afflicted by the blindness is itself never named nor the country specified, and there are few definite identifiers of culture, such as present-day technology. This contributes an element of timelessness as well as universality to the novel. The few definite identifiers of culture portrayed may hint that the country is Saramago's homeland of Portugal; the main character is shown eating chouriço, a spicy sausage, and some dialogue uses the familiar 'tu' second-person singular verb form (a distinction which does not exist in English, but does in Portuguese). The lack of proper nouns is a feature in many of Saramago's novels (e.g. "All the Names" or "The Cave").


* Saramago wrote a sequel to "Blindness" in 2004, titled "Seeing" ("Ensaio sobre a lucidez", literal English translation "Essay on lucidity"). It was written in Portuguese and has been translated into English. The new novel takes place in the same unnamed country as the first one and features several of the same characters.

Film adaptation

An English-language film adaptation of the novel was directed by Fernando Meirelles. Filming began in July 2007 and stars Mark Ruffalo as the doctor and Julianne Moore as the doctor's wife. The film served as the opener of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. [cite news
last = Chang
first = Justin
title = Blindness Movie Review
publisher = Variety
date = 2008-05-14
url =
accessdate = 2008-05-14


The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has criticized the work. In a banquet speech at the organization’s annual convention on July 4, 2008, in Dallas, Texas, NFB President Dr. Marc Maurer criticized the novel and its film adaptation as negatively portraying the blind. [cite journal | first=Marc | last=Maurer | url= | title=The Urgency of Optimism | journal=Braille Monitor | date=2008-07-04 | accessdate=2008-09-08 ]

See also

*"The Day of the Triffids", a 1951 novel also featuring an epidemic of mass blindness


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