Jose Saramago’s Blindness depicts a world suddenly stricken by a blindness epidemic. As an inexplicable wave of blindness spreads, society fragments and people freely express an “animalistic” form of human nature in face of the increased pressure for survival. The characters’ responses to their blindness paint a fairly pessimistic picture of human nature and in fact many humane features seem to be accredited to the existence of a functional society. However, the novel is not void of counterexamples to such a notion that society is unavoidably virtuous and that individuals are only driven by selfish instinct. Instead, the varied examples of individual behavior and society’s function depict that the latter is merely an emergent property of the former; the individuals who are in effect society’s building blocks are ultimately responsible for whatever shape and role society takes.
Early in the novel, society’s fragility is demonstrated; an alteration, as in the loss of eyesight, disintegrates the former version of society. The disassembly of society in the novel sparks the spread of chaos and the loss of organized human interaction. The initial entropic effects of society’s disassembly aside, however, the true extent of its role in the pre-outbreak society becomes evident by examining its absence in the asylum. Interestingly, the deterioration of the former society comes hand in hand with significant “dehumanization” of the setting’s inhabitants. Not long after the government’s setup of the quarantine, the people forgo fundamental human duties such as proper burial for the dead: “The occupants of the first and second wards gathered together in order to decide whether they should eat first and then bury the corpses, or the other way round. No one seemed interested in knowing who had died” (87). Evidently, the humane action of burying the dead is not highly prioritized in the absence of a coherent society. The people in the asylum are more in tune with their immediate needs as individuals and thereby ignore their responsibility to one another. Furthermore, the lack of concern over an exposed corpse marks the absence of any adherence to sanitation in the asylum. As the doctor (one of the novel’s main characters) looks for a bathroom to relieve himself, the realization of the prevalent filth horrifies him: “The stench chocked him. He had the impression of having stepped on some soft pulp, the excrement of someone who had missed the hole of the latrine or who had decided to relieve himself without any consideration for others” (92). In the absence of the characters’ liability to each other, filth quickly takes over the entire asylum. Such negative consequences of the people’s lack of accountability to one another illustrate the pre-epidemic society’s role in sustaining a favorable order.
The role of a practical society in maintaining a socially optimal balance is further illustrated by the events that follow the rise of a group of brutes in the asylum to power. With a gun in his possession, a blind man uses his circumstantial power to control the food supply: “The hoodlum shouted, Be quiet everyone and keep you mouths shut, if anyone dares to raise their voice, I’ll shoot straight out…from today onwards we shall take charge of the food” (139). With the absence of proper social measures to prevent the hoodlums from taking control of the rations, such as a dutiful group of soldiers, a few usurp power against the wishes of many. The acts of violence and abuse that ensue following the rise of the brutes repeatedly highlight the pre-epidemic society’s function in providing order and protecting its constituents. Furthermore, the former society’s absence provides an opportunity for the characters to demonstrate their fundamental human nature.
The basic and innate human nature presented in the novel is in many cases marked by selfishness and an “animalistic” prioritization of one’s own survival. As previously mentioned, the blindness removes any fear of reprisal and accountability for one’s actions, and thereby the characters’ true nature is allowed to manifest itself. The event following a dangerous attempt of one individual to obtain the group’s food from the asylum’s soldiers illustrates the self-serving side of human nature that is prevalent in the novel: “Taking advantage of the uproar, some of the blind internees had sneaked off with a number of containers, as many as they could carry, a patently disloyal way of forestalling any hypothetical injustices in the distribution” (103). The brave and seemingly selfless motivation of one blind man to bring back the group’s rations is ultimately defeated by the self-serving intentions of a few others. This selfish component of human nature relates it to the basic nature a beast; the impulse to be self-serving is as innate in man as it is in an animal. Moreover, on some instances elaborations of thought lead into deeper modes of exploitation than what one might expect from animal nature. In such cases in the novel, the self-serving impulses of individuals manifest themselves in much more heinous manners. For example, in response to the lack of proper payment for the rations, the group in possession of the gun proposes a new mode of compensation: “After a week, the blind hoodlums sent a message saying that they wanted women. Just like that, Bring us women” (166). The mode of exploitation and abuse demonstrated by the brutes’ actions depicts the potential of human character to be more uncaring and even less “humane” than what is expected in a purely animalistic nature. Indeed, in the absence of the pre-epidemic society, the human nature that comes to the surface in the asylum is predominantly dark and selfish. However, the element of individual virtue is not fully absent; in fact, the doctor’s wife’s selflessness throughout the novel refutes the notion of human nature as inevitably selfish.
Anomalously, the doctor’s wife does not become afflicted with the blindness epidemic that spreads throughout the setting. However, in place of the aforementioned selfish human nature that is all too common in the novel, the doctor’s wife repeatedly demonstrates altruism and compassion for others: she falsely proclaims herself blind in order to accompany her husband to the quarantine and, once there, cares for the blind around her to the extent of her abilities. The doctor’s wife’s actions demonstrate that the human nature depicted in the novel is not founded purely on or bound to selfishness. Even in the face of all the challenges brought forth by the quarantine and the epidemic, she demonstrates elements of humanity. One may argue that this is only so because she doesn’t directly suffer from blindness and thereby her true nature may not be presented in the novel. Nevertheless, the novel depicts a number people afflicted with blindness who demonstrate selfless and “humane” behavior, even in the absence of a fortified society. The independence of humane behavior from societal reinforcement is properly illustrated by the actions of an old woman who is clearly liberated from her societal bonds and acting solely based on her innate instincts. Upon finding her corpse, the doctor’s wife and her accompanying group learn of her last actions before passing away: “In the palm of the dead woman’s half-open hand resting on the ground there was a set of keys…before leaving, she remembered to open the doors of the rabbit hutches, she did not want the rabbits to die of hunger” (301) In her first encounter with the Doctor’s wife and the accompanying girl with the dark glasses, the old woman promises to hold on to the girl’s keys. The woman’s choice to fulfill her promise demonstrates aspects of virtue and honor that is present in her even in the absence of a fortified society. Furthermore, her concern about the welfare of the rabbits portrays the presence of a sense of compassion that can only be accredited to her innate nature. The old woman is extreme in both her separation from society and the free embrace of her internal nature, and through her actions she behaves as the novel’s most evident counterexample to the idea of human nature as purely self-serving and non-virtuous.
In addition to the demonstration of variable human nature, the novel provides accounts of both virtuous and corrupt societal structures. While the previously mentioned positive roles of society pertain to the one operating before the outbreak, many of the societal structures that arise in the post-outbreak setting demonstrate society’s potential to negatively influence the life of the people in it. In the quarantined asylum, the soldiers prioritize their own individual welfare over their duty to others: “Help us, these rogues are trying to steal our food. The soldiers pretended not to hear…if they ended up killing each other, so much the better, there will be fewer of them” (138).
The self-serving and uncaring motivations of the soldiers reflect themselves in the corruption of the army’s service to the people. The military being a staple of society’s function, the corruption that ensues in its operation depicts a large scale failure of the society to positively serve its constituents. Moreover, just as the old woman demonstrates the aspect of virtue in human nature, the autocratic society established by the asylum’s brutes depicts the potential of an organized societal structure to do harm to its constituents. Such examples of virtuous humanity and defective society in the novel can be understood in a more effective way than simply the novel’s exceptions to a dichotomy of society as inevitably beneficial and humanity as inescapably selfish. In effect, society is depicted in the book as an emergent property of the interactions and desires of the individuals who comprise it. Just as it can reflect the people’s desires for sanitation and protection prior to the epidemic, under the influence of the self-serving men with the gun it can bring about a truly horrific order. Society simply integrates human behaviors and desires into an organized, integrated and cohesive unit; its effect can be optimal or terrible depending on the type of input it receives from its building blocks.
Comprehending the aforementioned relationship between a society’s function and the behavior of its constituents is critical to understanding the novel’s message about one’s role in shaping society. Such a realization on behalf of the novel’s audience is mirrored by a similar one that the blind people make about the blueprints of an effective society. Towards the end of the novel the doctor and his wife encounter groups of people discussing and lecturing on the virtues of a functional society: “They were extolling the virtues of the fundamental principles of the great organized systems, private property, a free currency market, the market economy, taxation, production, distribution…Here they are talking about organization, said the doctor’s wife” (311). The emphasized functions of the desired form of society clearly reflect the people’s realized needs for organized service and accountability to one another. Such an organization of a society in the service of its constituents is something that the doctor advocates throughout the novel, and it arises from the people’s desire for a functional system of order. Soon after the initiation of such lectures on the direct reorganization of society, the novel’s characters witness an event that seems as inexplicable as the initiation of the epidemic itself: “Through the open window, despite the fact that they were so high up, the noise of the excited voices could be heard, the streets must be full of people, the crowd shouting just three words, I can see” (326). It is essential to note here that the blindness is not alleviated simply based on the assembly of any form of society; the blindness remains under the corrupt enforcement of a fearful government and under the violent rule of the brutes. The people’s eyesight returns only after they grasp the need for and their individual roles in constructing an effective society in the benefit of its constituents.
With regard to the highly anomalous origin and disappearance of the epidemic, the definitive meaning of the blindness is somewhat susceptible to varied interpretation. However, the aforementioned explanation can even account for the doctor’s wife’s seemingly anomalous lack of affliction with the epidemic. Her selfless actions and considerate behavior constantly demonstrate an understanding of her personal role in fostering a communally favored society. Thus she is uniquely able to comprehend the significance of her individual responsibility throughout the story and accordingly never loses her eyesight. As for the rest of the characters, the distinct correlation between their behavior and the function of the arising order dictates to the audience that society is but an emergent property of the interactions and desires of its constituents. Society’s usefulness comes in its ability to express its members’ collective needs in an organized manner; realizing this dependence of society on its constituents is an idea that the novel’s characters are blind to. Only after realizing the need for a truly useful society, one founded on its members’ accountability to the welfare of one another, are the people alleviated from their blindness.