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José Saramago: Ensaio sobre a cegueira (Blindness)

It is a busy day in the city. The traffic is waiting at a red light, eager to set off. The lights turn green. The cars set off but one lane does not move as the driver does not see that the lights have changed. He is suddenly, unaccountably blind. His blindness is not the normal blindness but, rather, he sees a milky white. People try to help him. A man volunteers to drive him home. He wants to go home, not to the hospital or a doctor. The man takes him home and he waits in his flat for his wife, who will soon be coming home from work. When she arrives, he realises that he no longer has his keys and that his car has probably been stolen. (We later learn that the man who helped him was a car thief, though, on this occasion, had not originally planned to steal the car.) His wife goes blind. We soon learn that the car thief has also gone blind. And then others go blind. An opthalmologist is struck blind as are his patients. The opthalmologist contacts the ministry when he realises what is going on. At first he is laughed at but when the authorities realise what is happening, all those struck blind are quickly taken to an abandoned mental institution and more or less left to fend for themselves. Much of the novel is about what happens there.

The first intake are herded into one ward. All are blind, with one exception, the wife of the opthalmologist. She is the only one not affected. There is another ward, which has people who are not blind but are deemed to have come into contact with the blind and therefore pose a risk. Other blind people soon start arriving. The place is guarded by soldiers who soon keep well away from the blind people. Food is left at the door and any blind person coming too near is shot. The blind have to manage themselves, including distribution of food, cleaning up, sanitary issues (which soon get totally out of hand) and burial of the dead. Initially, in the ward containing the doctor, his wife, the car thief and others, there is some confrontation, particularly when the car owner and the car thief come into contact. With the food arriving regularly, everyone tries to adapt, till a bunch of thugs takes over one ward and threatens to prevent the others from getting food, using a gun and bits of beds as weapons. Matters get worse when the thugs demand firstly payment of valuables and then the women in return for food. When the food stops coming, they hoard all the food to themselves. However, during all of this, only one person can still see – the doctor’s wife. It is she – a mild-mannered, decent woman – who deals with the matter and the survivors escape. The last part of the novel is about how they and others try to survive outside, where everybody has gone blind and food is running out. The situation is unremittingly gloomy.

Whether the blindness is a symbol for some sort of moral decay – and it seems to be as one of the characters suggest that there are no blind people, only blindness and we clearly see most of the characters behave badly in this situation, with everyone looking out for their own needs. The story is totally gloomy, with few redeeming behaviours. Excrement covers the floors and streets and everyone seems to happily walk through it as Saramago tells us several times, though no-one seems to get sick. Once their sight has gone, survival is the only thing that matters and civilisation soon falls apart. But, for Saramago, maybe we are already blind.
Translated by Giovanni Pontiero

Publishing history

First published 1995 by Caminho, Lisbon
First English translation 1997 by Harvill