Shit on Saramago: The Power Literature has on Reality

***This was my grad school craft paper. It’s not academic enough to be published in a journal or even literary mag, but I still think it’s worth sharing. It’s a bit long, but hope you enjoy. ***TW: Some examples of graphic sexual assault, and ablist depictions.

Blindness in Literature:
Shaping Blind Characters: Fully Realized vs. Stereotypical Characters, and the Power of Literature to Impact Reality

Fear, ignorance and the idea that being non-disabled is superior keep those of us with disabilities from progressing in society. Literature maintaining these ideas of inequality, perpetuated by stereotypes, only allow society to continue able privilege. When we are denied equality because of our disability, it becomes difficult for us to advance along with the rest of the world. In literature, people with disabilities are taken out of reality and instead placed into a cookie-cutter image that is often negative and detrimental. From the virtuous to the villainous, to the foolish to the worthless, literature has the power to shape society’s views on disability.
Art shapes society. It has the ability to inform our thoughts and opinions, impacting reality. The instant our pen inks the page, we release ideals into the world, landing where they will, potentially affecting societal views. Artist have a responsibility, and we must be held accountable for our actions when we fail to be fair to experiences outside our own.
Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, former president for the National Federation of the Blind, (NFB), says in a speech delivered at the 1974 National Convention of the NFB, “History, we are told, is the record of what human beings have done; literature, the record of what they have thought,” (Jernigan, 1). This opinion displays the vast difference between action and thought. Do the writers of literature create realistic portrayals of those with disabilities, or do they merely expose societal perceptions? History contains a portion of fact, though misinterpreted or, at times, omitted from historical records, but always open to discovery and new interpretations. With literature, “The author is free to cut through facts to the essence, to dream and soar and surmise. Going deeper than history, the myths and feelings of a people are enshrined in its literature,” (Jernigan, 1). Literature holds the means to thought and discovery, and one only needs to pick up a book to begin the journey into self, to find one’s inner beliefs and feelings. This is the power writers possess with their craft.
With this in mind, let’s ask: How are blind people perceived in the literary world? Are we human individuals capable of distinct personalities, or are we singular outlines, used as metaphors or virtues? Authors through the ages have delivered stereotypical blind characters, but often the images are contradictory. We are either paradigms of virtue and purity, or we are foolish, helpless beings, and at times we are described as criminal and depraved. Writers still continue to misinterpret disability, using us as motifs and metaphors to explain society, even if the metaphors can not be agreed upon. Instead of being a complete character, we are given one-dimensional personalities, treated as broken figures, incapable of being whole.
In this paper, we will look at blind characters from Blindness by Jose Saramago and Girl Stolen by April Henry, considering how each is portrayed. We will determine if a character is fully realized, becoming more than a disability, or if they are a stereotype based on societal perceptions.
Disability has been a theme in literature as far back as ancient times. Early writings depict blindness as weak or present a negative image. The Christian Bible is rampant with stories involving disabled characters.
In Genesis, Isaac is not able to tell the difference between his two sons, Esau and Jacob, due to his blindness, as the sons compete for the birthright blessing. Jacob deceives his father by pretending to be Esau, Covering his arms with goat skin. “Jacob went near Isaac, his father; and Isaac felt him, and said, the voice is Jacob’s, but the hands are the hands of Esau. And Isaac discerned him not, because his hands were hairy like Esau’s, and Isaac blessed him,” (Bible Dictionary Genesis 27:22-23).
This story would have us believe a father can’t distinguish between the voices of his children. A flap of course goat skin feels the same as a hairy human arm? Blind people know how ridiculous this is, but society has accepted stories like this throughout the ages. The idea that blind people are frequently confused by their surroundings, incapable of identifying and distinguishing is pervasive. This portrayal is common in literature.
A common theme is to use dark and light as a metaphor. Blindness in particular fits this scenario. In John, Jesus refers to living in the dark, equating blindness to sin after healing a blind man. The Apostles of Jesus ask, “Who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Bible Dictionary John 9:2). This idea persists today; Blindness often carries negative connotations. How many times do we say, “He was blind to the situation,” or, “You’re blind to what is happening.” This usage is always intended to imply lack of knowledge or understanding, deriving from the perception that when blind, people are not able to access a true understanding of the world.
Disability is often considered a curse. The Bible demonstrates this concept, weaving back to ancient times. In Genesis, a group of men attempt to barge into a house, but are struck blind and unable to find the door, even though they are standing right in front of it. “And they smote the men that were at the door of the house with blindness, both small and great, so that they wearied themselves of finding the door,” (Bible Dictionary Genesis 19:11). Blindness is seen as so inferior to sight that one loses all common sense.
All disabilities are deemed cursed and not worth as much as non-disabled people in the following Bible passage:
And God spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to Aaron, saying none of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or a man who has an injured foot, or an injured hand, or a hunchback or dwarf or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. No man of the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s food; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer bread to his God. He shall not go through the veil or approach the alter because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries. (Bible Dictionary Leviticus 21:16-23)
This idea that people with disabilities are broken and unwhole is a concept disabled people still fight against today. We have few role models in literature to look up to or direct others too. Literature rarely plays fair with disabled characters, especially the blind. We do not often have the chance to be normal in books. Literature continues to follow these negative images, often summarizing a human life as pointless and worthless.
At times, some writers choose to degrade and demean the blind through literature, adopting antiquated notions. One of the worse portrayals of disability in modern times is Blindness by Jose Saramago. Saramago shows what can happen when there is a break-down in the structure of society, equating the loss of eyesight to depravity. He believes humanity impossible of being civilized when what is known is stripped away.
Saramago creates a world where a strange phenomenon strikes the entire world blind. Initially, the “white blindness” affects only a few, who are locked in an old insane asylum. Life inside the asylum and on the outside deteriorates quickly, however, and soon the world is dealing with an apocalypse-type situation. Homes and buildings are left abandoned. Modern structures such as electricity and plumbing can no longer be operated. A complete breakdown in society has occurred. One woman alone has managed to avoid the white blindness, so called for the blinding whiteness everyone has, and her group fares better, we are led to believe, because she has sight. The world does not hold to the human traits of courage and kindness, but reverts to a survival-of-the-fittest, save-yourself mentality.
In this novel, humanity is stripped away from an entire group of people. “Blind people do not need a name, I am my voice, nothing else matters,” (Saramago, 149). Saramago may be using a metaphor, but he makes the lives of the blind insignificant. In reality, what Saramago accomplishes is to further marginalize a part of society.
As blind people fight for fair and equal treatment, books like Blindness perpetuate stereotypes creating obstacles holding blind people back. The novel is heavy with misconceptions about blind people. Here are a few examples from the book illustrating this point:
A character states that, “Blind people do not consult an opthamologist,” (Saramago, 12). Actually, most blind and low vision people see an eye specialist on a regular basis. Many eye conditions frequently change, and quite a few conditions are degenerative. Also, it’s common for blind people to develop secondary conditions, so regular check-ups are necessary.
In the beginning, a character comments, “They say that blindness is black,” (Saramago, 3) after someone describes what he sees as white. Most blind people retain some level of vision, ranging from still seeing objects to shadows to just light. And those labeled totally blind do not see dark but rather nothing; it’s a complete absence of image, light or dark.
After one of the main character’s loses his sight, his wife speculates, “Blindness does not spread through contagion like an epidemic. Blindness is not something that can be caught by a blind man looking at someone who is not. Blindness is a private matter between someone and the eyes in which he or she is born,” (Saramago, 30). While many people are born blind, there are many people who lose sight later in life from various diseases, genetic conditions or accidents. The reality is that anyone can become disabled at any time due to various circumstances.
As the “infected” are dropped off at the defunct mental hospital, now turned quarantine ward, the doctor, as he’s referred to thinks, “What good is a doctor without eyes?” (Saramago, 45). There are practicing blind doctors and nurses currently. They practice a variety of medicine, graduates of prestigious medical schools.
These examples establish that Saramago did little to no research before crafting his narrative. Clearly, he cared little for depicting blindness realistically or honestly. this book would never have seen the light of day if blindness had been Replace with a race or ethnicity. But use a disability, and no one questions it; no one bats an eye because Saramago relies on societal perceptions.
Sadly, these perceptions are wide-spread, allowing a book like Blindness to go uncontested in its depiction of blindness. And because these perceptions are pervasive, Saramago likely did not consider any other perspective. Reading through reviews of the books, comment after comment praises Saramago, specifically for using blindness as an allegory for the current state of affairs in our world. Few seem to recognize the harm being done to blind people.
In a review of the book by James Fetter, he says, “Saramago propagates and embellishes negative stereotypes of blindness in all 294 pages of his book,” (Fetter, 1). The characters lose their ability to care for their most basic needs, wrongly assuming that sight is necessary for even daily functions. A Character in the book says, “There is a vast difference between a blind man sleeping, and a blind person who opens his eyes to no purpose,” (Saramago, 112), declaring the life of the blind as meaningless.
Now, I will be fair. It is true that a majority of the world in this book become blind quickly with no training in nonvisual skills. This would certainly make navigating the situation difficult. That being said, a large part of living with a disability is learning to problem solve. Daily, disabled people have to live in a world set up for non-disabled people. Whether it’s lack of accessible material such as Braille, or ramps for wheelchairs, or sign language interpreters, disabled people must learn to problem solve and figure out how to live in a non-disabled world. For most, this is instinctual, not something they were taught. In Blindness, many characters would have done the same, especially when it comes to basic needs like bathing and using the toilet. Instead, Saramago has his characters incapable of basic needs, and some don’t even care. Losing your sight does not equate to losing your humanity.
You also have to consider that blind people already exist in society, so likely more than one previously blind person would be placed in quarantine with newly blind people. Those who had been blind would be able to guide people around and show them the ropes, so to speak. Who better to lead the blind than the blind?
Blind people have knowledge of living nonvisually, doing daily tasks without sight. It’s perfectly conceivable that previously blind people could have taken the charge and restored order. In real life, David Patterson was a blind governor of New York. Tim Cordes is a practicing blind doctor, and actually, the first blind doctor was Jacob Bolotin, who practiced in the late 1800s. Kevin Whorley is a blind business owner from Colorado, running a million-dollar-a-year operation. Scott LaBarre is a blind lawyer who has tried several cases, most involving disability discrimination. Debra Kent-Stein is a blind writer who has been published several times. There are so many blind people doing so many things. At some point, you think literature would catch up and create strong, capable characters. Still full of complexity but equally capable. So, blindness doesn’t have to lead to a complete collapse of the world. But no, Saramago didn’t consider this. Whether you’ve been blind your entire life or newly blind, you’re rendered incapable, limited, caring little for personal needs.
Blindness perpetuates so many negative attitudes and stereotypes society has about disability. The above examples demonstrate the lack of knowledge Saramago has about blind people. Let’s look at how Saramago dehumanizes blind people, pushing these perceptions throughout the novel. Consider how this dehumanization creates a lifeless, flat character. Do we identify with a character, or do we view them with pity and fear? Are the characters complex, capable of several emotions and actions, or do they shrink down to one characteristic? Are we left with a three-dimensional image of each character, or do we merely see their blindness?
Several times the book states names are no longer important, diminishing the humanity of the blind characters. Not a single character has a proper name. Instead, they are referred to as the doctor or the doctor’s wife or the girl with sunglasses or the first blind man. Intentional or not, the lack of names contributes to the dehumanizing of the characters in this book. It also makes this novel a plot-driven story rather than character-driven. Descriptions and statements about blindness consume the story, overpowering any characterization.
Compared to other characters from other novels and even what we are taught about character development, these characters are one-dimensional. The only characters we see depth in are the doctor’s wife, the only sighted person, and the accountant, who has always been blind. The wife cares about her husband and lies about being blind so she can be quarantined with him. She takes on the role of care giver for the characters in her room. The blind man takes initiative to control the facility. He’s bad, but he threatens inmates, setting up a payment system for food. No other character shows much personality beyond to show bitterness and sadness about their situation. They have become nothing more than a husk of a former self. They do not possess any personality traits they did before becoming blind. Saramago just creates shadows of characters, pushing the idea that blindness is all consuming, leaving you empty.
A common image throughout the book is the comparison to animals. Characters are given animal-like characteristics. Descriptions fill the pages showing blind characters acting or moving like animals. This is one of the most offensive threads in Blindness, and it’s pervasive throughout. This contributes to the dehumanization of the characters.
People who are blind are suddenly equated to dogs. In one scene, as an injured man tries to leave his room, he falls and Saramago writes, “Then he realized that this position was perfect for a blind person, for if he were to advance on all fours, he would find the way easier,” (Saramago, 72). This seems to perpetuate the assumption that blind and low vision people are incapable of mobility and problem-solving methods for navigating unfamiliar spaces.
The comparison to animals continues in this passage:
Some of the blind internees advancing on all fours, their faces practically touching the ground, as if they were pigs, one arm outstretched in midair, while others perhaps afraid that the white space without a roof to protect them would swallow them up, clung desperately to the rope and listened attentively, expecting to hear at any minute that first exclamation of triumph once the containers were discovered. The soldiers would have liked to aim their weapons and without compunction, shoot down those imbeciles moving before their eyes like lame crabs waving their unsteady pincers in search of their missing leg. (Saramago, 100)
They are “pigs” and “lame crabs” and “imbeciles.” These are derogatory, insulting depictions, reverting characters to animals, or worst, rendering them bumbling fools. This quote is humorous, caring little for the circumstances and plight of the characters. This image turns the narrative almost farcical by the language used. Images like this belong in a comedic novel, not a serious novel about a plague-like situation; at least not when the tone of the rest of the book remains dark and depressing.
The following passage sums up the thesis of the book, in my opinion. In essence, it claims the life of blind people is meaningless and pointless:
We’re so remote from the world that any day now, we shall no longer know who we are, or even remember our names, and besides, what use would names be to us, no dog recognizes another dog or knows the others by name. A dog is identified by its scent and that is how it identifies others. Here we are, like another breed of dog, we know each other’s bark or speech, as for the rest, features, color of eyes, or hair, they are of no importance, it is as if they did not exist. (Saramago, 57)
Blind and low vision people do not necessarily know hair color or body size or facial features upon meeting people, but we are not locked in a dark world, separate from others. We cannot be diminished to nothing more than our blindness, but must be seen as active, vital, complex humans. Blindness is one of our traits, but not our entire definition, nor is it the priority of our existence. To whittle blind people down to a dog is not only offensive but detrimental to society; the same society shouting for equality and diversity for everyone but disabled people.
As mentioned earlier, blind people have the ability to problem solve. These characters never attempt to figure out their surroundings or consider how to do things. I was not exposed to nonvisual training or other blind people before I became blind. I essentially went from being low vision to totally blind overnight. I woke up the next day and still went about caring for myself, managing to get around and bathe and feed myself.
Consider your house in the dark: Do you suddenly forget where objects are? Do you become completely confused by your surroundings? Do you lose the ability to ambulate and search for items? Most people can gather themselves, innately collecting information; it may be slower or you might question yourself a lot, especially in the beginning, but most would figure out a plan. It would not have been out of the realm of possibility for Saramago’s characters to have been a little more independent even though experiencing an unfamiliar way of life.
Here’s an example of how the characters lack to adapt to their new life. As the doctor finds a bathroom, the following description is given, “At the open latrine, the stench choked him. He had the impression of having stepped on some soft pulp, the excrement of someone who had missed the whole latrine or someone who had decided to relieve himself without any consideration for others,” (Saramago, 92). Descriptions like this, reverting characters to animal-like behavior, emphasizes the helplessness so many believe of blind people. As he considers how dirty he is, the doctor thinks, “There are many ways of becoming an animal, he thought. This is just the first of them. However, he could not really complain; he still had someone who did not mind cleaning him,” (Saramago, 93). Again, a common misperception, especially in past decades, that blind people cannot bathe themselves or maintain hygiene without sighted assistance. Saramago relies heavily on these misconceptions, creating characters to be pitied and feared.
The following is a real-life example of how pervasive these ideas are: As I sat with a group of fellow trainees at the Iowa Department for the Blind, a nonvisual training center, we were introduced to a book. The book was intended to teach people how to instruct blind people in daily tasks. One thing it mentioned was how to bathe. The book was meant for blind adults. The descriptions were degrading and offensive. The point of showing us the book was to demonstrate the antiquated notions still existing in society. And here Saramago writes about how the doctor is lucky because he has someone to bath him, implying those without sighted assistance cannot bath and are unclean. This clearly shows the disconnect between reality and the fiction Saramago has spun.
Saramago literally has his characters living among shit. Newly blind or not, no one wants to live among feces. Characters relieve themselves wherever they feel like it, regardless where a bathroom is. This is offensive, and people just don’t behave in this manner. In the book, eventually the floors are coated in urine and excrement. To think anyone would live in these conditions regardless of disability, is beyond me. Once they venture out of the facility, they find the streets are also littered with trash and feces. Entering buildings, a similar image is presented as blind people have decided relieving themselves wherever they feel like it is perfectly acceptable. The worst stereotypes are propagated in Blindness, this particular example being one of the most insulting.
If we address relatability, can we find commonality with characters who do not care where they relieve themselves? It’s one thing to have a character with an illness who cannot control their bodily functions; it’s an entirely different situation to depict characters too lazy to find a bathroom. As readers, can we connect with these circumstances? Or do we simply pity these characters, thanking God we are not blind? This is what writing like Saramago’s accomplishes: We witness a pitiful, pathetic portrayal, seeing nothing but the blindness, certain deep down that this is what being blind is really like.
Saramago’s false images of blindness contribute to the real-life marginalization of blind people. Blindness is viewed as inferior, rendering one incapable to the point of utter helplessness. The stereotypes demoralize and give credence to misinformed perceptions. In this quote, he projects one of the most common, misheld beliefs about blindness:
The worst thing is that whole families, especially the smaller ones rapidly became families of blind people, leaving no one who could guide or look after them, nor protect sighted neighbors from then. It was clear that these blind people, however caring a father, mother or child they might be, could not take care of each other; otherwise, they would meet the same fate of the blind people in the painting, walking together, falling together and dying together. (Saramago, 123)
This idea of sighted assistance is projected again when he writes, “Then we beseech you eyes, a pair of eyes, a hand capable of leading and guiding us, a voice that will say to me, ‘This way.’ These blind internees, unless we come to their assistance, will soon turn into animals. Worse still, into blind animals,” (Saramago, 132). The portrayal of incapable blind people in this novel perpetuates societal perceptions. And once again, we encounter the animal image, as characters revert to animal behavior. He’s shaping a narrative built around misinformed and wildly inappropriate depictions of blindness.
Let’s argue that during an end-of-the-world crisis, civilization may break down. And if all people were suddenly blind, and not given any instruction on nonvisual skills, it would make many tasks difficult, some near impossible. And like any loss, people would grieve their lack of sight. All this may be true, realistic, but assuming it would cause society to lose its humanity in terms of hygiene and personal care, and losing all sense of personality, is just Ludacris. Disabled or not, no one wants to live in filth. No one is willing to act like a dog or any other animal beyond protecting themselves or those they care about. Rule and order would likely break down in this scenario, but no one would shit where they eat. Saramago may have created a dystopian society, but in any other end-of-the-world storyline, would his characters have been portrayed as defecating where they eat and sleep, moving around on all fours, suddenly incapable of bathing themselves? No, but because characters are blind in this narrative, it’s okay and handed the Nobel Literature Prize.
Literature has the power to educate and inform, change perceptions, move society. When writers use this power irresponsibly, it can set us back decades, even centuries. By the nineties, the blind community had been breaking barriers and changing mindsets about blindness for fifty years. It presented legislation including the Americans with Disabilities Act among countless educational efforts to bring equality for disabled people to the forefront. Then Blindness was published. All the hard work of blindness groups to change perceptions, and Saramago creates a soul-crushing narrative depicting blind people with the worst stereotypes possible. In an interview, Saramago once said he did not care if he offended anyone by writing Blindness. He took his power and diminished an entire group of people, all done in the name of literature.
In society, the idea that blind people cannot care for themselves or others is pervasive. Most blind people have daily encounters with sighted peers who question and doubt their ability to live independently and safely. In 2010, a blind couple met with negative attitudes after the birth of their daughter, having their abilities doubted because of assumptions. In an article in The Braille Monitor, Gary Wonder shares this disconcerting story.
Blake and Erika were learning to breastfeed, which many new moms attempt and struggle with initially. Erika eventually called the nurse for help, and after adjusting the position of her baby, all went accordingly from that point on. So, Blake and Erika were surprised when a child protective service worker showed up four hours later.
The parents were hit with questions about if they could see at all, and how they can realistically care for a child when blind. The lack of eyesight seemed the biggest obstacle for the CPS employee as she asked, “Will someone with sight be present to supervise your care of this baby twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week?” (Wonder, 1).
CPS did not allow the parents to take her home once discharged. Their daughter was placed in foster care. The CPS worker said, “I just can’t, in good conscience, send this baby home with two people who are blind,” (Wonder, 1).
Blake and Erika were evaluated to determine if they possessed any other disabilities or conditions or traits that may consider them unfit parents. The National Federation of the Blind did its own assessment, and did not find any reason why they could not parent. After an attorney was hired, it was discovered that, “Records from Children’s Protective Services also revealed nothing other than blindness as a reason for removing Mikaela from her parents and placing her in protective custody,” Wonder, 1).
Despite the fact that the commissioner overseeing the case questioned CPSs decision, as did the foster mother, and several people in and outside of the community, supporting Blake and Erika, it took CPS fifty-seven days to reverse the order and place Mikaela back with her parents. Wonder writes:
By law, cases of this type must be addressed within sixty days. Fifty-seven of those went by while Mikaela lived with someone other than her parents. The Children’s Division did not take advantage of the resources we offered to teach them about blindness. They did not turn to their sister agency, Rehabilitation Services for the Blind, which could have provided countless examples of blind parents successfully raising their children. They did not expedite this case to encourage Mikaela’s bonding with her parents. They waited until the very day they would be forced to justify their actions to an openly skeptical commissioner before returning baby Mikaela to where she should have been all along. (Wonder, 1)
This is just one example of societal misconceptions clouding the judgment of people who assume blind people cannot care for themselves and others. Books like Blindness lean on these inaccurate notions and just perpetuate the misinformed ideas many people have about a disability like blindness. Many already fear disability, and all a book like Blindness does is give credibility to inaccurate fears. On Good Reads.com, a reviewer says, “The thought of losing one’s sight is an extremely terrifying one, and the amount of dependence on one another will be a theme to watch in this book. The writing is compelling,” (Good Reads.com, par. 2). Writers like Saramago sustain these ideas, their depictions leaking off the pages into real-life.
Let’s turn to Saramago’s contradictory depictions. In the beginning of the book, characters are incapable of finding the bathroom, relieving themselves all over the facility. We are told how helpless blind people are, becoming victims. And yet, they can find their way to the room where the food is kept and back to their own room on a daily basis. Characters are not able to bath themselves, but they can rape women and patrol hallways. They cannot care for their basic needs, but committing crimes is not a problem.
This is definitely not fair treatment of the characters. Some inmates create a gang, capable of hording food, dolling it out as they please, policing the facility, but no one is apparently capable of trying to bring order and cohesiveness to the inmates. This illustrates how little Saramago understands blindness.
Fetter writes in his review, “Saramago portrays blind people incapable of caring for themselves, falling into depravity without sight. “By describing the blind in this fashion, Saramago reinforces popular prejudices against us and adds a few of his own, namely the implication the blind tend towards crime and moral obtuseness,” (Fetter, 1). This is not only a contradiction, but once again, the lack of eyesight leads to depraved behavior. Yes, we have to consider that in an end-of-the-world situation, several people would unfortunately turn to crime. The dark side of humanity would be revealed. But the commonality in Blindness seems to suggest that this vile behavior is a direct connection to losing sight.
An example of this immoral, criminal behavior happens when a group of men decide to form a gang and demand payment for food. They begin to take charge of the facility, roughing up fellow inmates and creating chaotic order:
inmates, armed with sticks, and metal rods from the beds, pointing outwards like bayonets or lances, confronted the desperation of the blind inmates who were surrounding them and making awkward attempts to force their way through the line of defense. Some with the hope of finding an opening, a gap. Someone had been careless enough to not close properly. They warded off the blows with raised arms, others crawled along on all fours until they bumped into the legs of their adversaries who repelled them with a blow to their backs or a vigorous kick, hitting out blindly as the saying goes. These scenes were accompanied by indecent protests, furious cries, ‘We demand our food. We have a right to eat. (Saramago, 136-7)
Later, the gang decides to request sexual favors as payment. “After a week, the hoodlums sent a message saying that they wanted women, just like that.’Bring us women,’” (Saramago, 166). The women are forced to engage in sexual acts with members of the gang. Blindness has created a disruption in society, leaving characters to give in to their basest instincts. Morality grows foggy and crime rises all because people can no longer see. The loss of eyesight has caused them to lose their humanity.
The following passage continues this thread. We can also see the distinct difference from earlier statements about blind people:
He drew the two women towards him and almost drooled as he said, ‘I’ll keep these two. When I’m finished with them, I’ll pass them onto the rest of you.’ He dragged them to the end of the ward…The women, all of them, were already screaming their heads off. Blows, slaps, orders could be heard, ‘Shut up, you whores. These bitches are all the same. They always have to start yelling. Give it to her hard and she’ll soon be quiet. Just wait until it’s my turn… She watched how the blind leader with the gun tore into the skirt of the girl with dark glasses; how he took down his trousers, and guided himself with his fingers, pointing his member at the girl’s sex. How he pushed and forced. (Saramago, 178-9)
The gang is comprised of all blind characters, and yet they seem capable of functioning without sighted assistance. Earlier descriptions show blind characters unable to walk on their own. Locating their whereabouts is impossible. Finding a bathroom is an insurmountable feat. Yet the gang manages to do all this and more. It’s a complete departure of the image presented earlier as well as later. Can we realistically state the blind are incapable of most everything, then turn around and contradict that image?
Dystopian literature reveals the break-down in society when humans are put to the test as they deal with and adapt to new experiences. Characters become immoral, often committing violence. Blindness does not break from this trope, and likely, this is what would happen in real life. However, in this novel, the string holding society together seems to be sight. If you can see, you’re less likely to commit crimes. But if you’re blind, you care little for others.
Saramago did not write Blindness to purposefully degrade those who are blind, but his intentions were to explain the fragile nature of humanity. However, he misrepresents a whole group of society, and his attempt at allegory falls short of the mark in as far as presenting a realistic portrayal of life as a blind person.
As he writes, “Blindness is also this, to live in a world where all hope is gone,” (Saramago, 209.) Which is just a reflection most of the world believes. Saramago only writes the perception in society, reiterating it in literature. “The only reason that this work met with such critical acclaim is that the damaging stereotypes Saramago employs in his narrative are so wide spread as to be deemed common knowledge. Thus, instead of challenging our assumptions about our fellow man, as he is so often credited with, Saramago panders to widespread erroneous assumptions of the blind,” (Fetter, 1). It is literature such as this that continues to be damaging to those who must live in reality and know these stereotypes to be false.
Blindness was not written in a time lacking wide-spread education about disability. Saramago could have reached out to several sources and organizations as he developed his story, creating a realistic, rich narrative with three-dimensional characters, full of depth despite their circumstances. Blindness probably lives in the realm of Magical Realism, but there’s still no excuse for diminishing and degrading an entire group of people.
When we look at these characters from a new perspective, we can conclude that the characters in Blindness do not represent real blind people. They are created upon societal perceptions, lacking complexity and relatability. Saramago eternalizes misguided and damaging stereotypes, impacting the real life of blind people.
The antithesis to a creation like Blindness is a story like Girl Stolen by April Henry. Henry molds a main character who loses her sight later in life but overcomes the barriers forced on her by society.
Cheyenne is a teen-age girl, left dozing in the car as her step-mom, Danielle, runs into a pharmacy to pick up a prescription. Another teen, Griffin, steals the car, with Cheyenne in it, unbeknownst to him. Once he discovers her, unsure of what to do, he kidnaps her along with the car. Cheyenne must figure out how to escape and deal with her predicament.
Griffin is a teen, working for his father, Roy, who runs a chop-shop in the middle-of-nowhere. Roy and his two assistants, TJ and Jimbo, are grizzled, hardened, cynical characters. Cheyenne is uneasy around them, not entirely sure what they might do to her. Roy is initially angered that Griffin stole a car with someone in it, but when he learns that Cheyenne is the daughter of the president of Nike, Roy works this information to his advantage.
Cheyenne is a fuller, three-dimensional character. We do not even learn she is blind until several pages into the story. But the descriptions are full, never allowing us to question the perspective. As she sleeps in the back of the car, we hear a door slam, feel the blanket on her face, hear the keys turn in the ignition, feel the car rumble to life. “Now the door slammed closed, the SUV rocking a little as weight settled into the driver’s seat. The engine started, and the emergency brake clunked as it was released. The car jerked into reverse,” (Henry, 2). These sensory descriptions are engaging and realistic, and when we do learn that Cheyenne is blind, the detail to sensory descriptions becomes clearer. But even if Cheyenne were not blind, or this detail was never mentioned, sensory descriptions would lead the story, creating a realistic picture for the reader.
These sensory descriptions also lend themselves to showing Cheyenne engaging with her surroundings. She tries to discern her surroundings, mentally grasping for anything to help her escape. She is not confident, far from it, but she’s not ready to give up in despair yet either. She has a resilience that fortifies her. In the following quote, we see her gathering what information she can that may help her later: “The house smelled funky, like mold, bacon grease and cigarettes. The floors were bare. Cheyenne could tell by the sound of their footsteps that they were made of wood, no tile or linoleum. She shuffled her feet so that she could hear the echo from the walls. The room sounded small,” (Henry, 36). While it can take time to properly adjust to gleaning information from other senses without thinking about it, it really is an innate human ability to gain understanding from all of our senses, not just sight. As we learn later, Cheyenne did not lose her vision until she was thirteen, and she’s only sixteen in the present, so just three years. Regardless, had she been sighted and had her eyes covered, she could have used similar methods to access the same information. This clearly does not render her a complete victim, unable to know or do anything, as Saramago would have us believe.
I want to provide a real-life example of how you can learn about your environment with nonvisual means. A few years ago, I had a couple of young men barge into my house. Acting like they were seeking donations for their school, I left them standing on the landing, closed the door and went to grab my purse. Within minutes, I heard the door open, and both boys sauntered in. Unsure of their intentions, red flags raised everywhere, I did my best to pay attention, discerning whatever I could.
The boys talked, becoming chattier and chattier. One part of me chatted back while the other assessed the situation. I tried corralling them back towards the door, but one of them swished passed me. Hearing the Velcro flap of my purse crunch open, I snapped, “Can I help you?”
The boy seemed surprised and claimed he was just watching what I had on TV. I told them it was time to go and held the door open. As they filed out, I maneuvered my body, letting them brush against me so I could try to determine height, weight and clothing. Slamming the door, I immediately called the police.
When the officer arrived, I not only gave him an account of what happened but was able to provide an approximation of how tall they were and what they were wearing, which were denim and sweat shirts. Within the hour, they found two young men walking in the neighborhood, fitting the description. They arrested them and brought them to my apartment. With the door closed, they were directed to speak, saying a phrase they had said while inside my apartment, so I could identify their voices.
In addition to my voice identification, they had evidence on them. They had stuck a piece of paper on my door stating, “Nate was here,” which they found other strips of paper with the same saying on the boys, along with the fifty dollars in cash they took from me.
The boys were sent to jail, where it was discovered they were with a group from out of state. Last I knew, they were transferred to a jail in their home state, but the point of this story is to explain that lack of sight did not render me an incapable or unreliable witness. In Girl Stolen, Cheyenne is using the same nonvisual methods to assess her situation. The same methods characters in Blindness could have relied on, especially as weeks went by, giving them time to adapt.
Cheyenne may have a disadvantage in this situation, but she is shown with strength and determination. She does not sit, whining, wishing for a sighted savior. Instead, she begins problem-solving, figuring out how she might deal with her situation.
Cheyenne does not accept her circumstances. From the get-go, she’s determined to save and protect herself. In comparison to the women in Blindness, Cheyenne fights back. Beginning on page five, she demands Griffin stop the car as she assesses her predicament. Unsure of his intentions, she is not willing to be a victim only. “As soon as he slowed down, the girl came at him. Outstretched hands curved into claws, screaming like a banshee,” (Henry, 7(. She is screaming and wrestling with Griffin. She seems willing to do anything to escape. She does not intend to lie down, thinking herself unable. And a little later, “Her fingernails raked down his cheek, and he could feel she had drawn blood,” (Henry, 8).
Let’s contrast this with the characters in Blindness. If it were not for the doctor’s wife, who still has sight, the group would fare worse than they do. As the women are marched to the room to be raped, it is only the sighted woman who fights back. As the gang beats inmates, no one attempts to defend themselves. When the doctor’s wife leads them out of the facility, they find people all over the city, literally laying down because they don’t believe themselves capable of finding shelter or food. They seem prepared to die. Yet, in Girl Stolen, Cheyenne does not let blindness be a major factor as she defends herself, trying to escape from a bad situation.
It can be argued that the survival-of-the-fittest mentality characters revert to in Blindness is human nature responding to its environment, and this is a point to be considered. However, Cheyenne’s nature to fight back, refusing to be a helpless victim, incapable of caring for herself is also a form of human nature responding to less than ideal circumstances. As the story continues, Cheyenne is not always sure what to do, and her blindness certainly creates a unique barrier to escaping her situation.
But she does not give up, constantly seeking advantages with every encounter. And at times, blindness presents an innovative method for handling a tricky circumstance. It is her determination to survive that depicts more humanity than seen in Saramago’s novel.
Beginning on page thirty-six, as Cheyenne is guided through the house and tied up with a long chord on Griffin’s bed, she has a steady stream moving through her head of what she can do and use to get out of this mess. After she’s given a glass of water and Griffin leaves, she breaks the glass, pocketing a large, sharp piece as a possible weapon and to untie herself. She then brushes the rest of the broken pieces under a dresser to get rid of the evidence. Again, she’s shown with resolve here, ready to figure the puzzle pieces out of her predicament.
Cheyenne’s first attempt at escape begins on page sixty-one. Talking with Griffin, trying to make him think she’s not a threat, she asks to use the bathroom. Once inside, she turns on the faucet to drown out noise and immediately feels around, searching the space. She finds a window, but calculating her ability to make it far before being caught, she hides in the shower behind the curtain. She’s thinking ahead, considering all options for escape.
Cheyenne recollects the sounds she heard when entering the house, and what part of the house she’s in now, determining what direction the bathroom window faces. She’s collecting her knowledge, deciphering a way out. This is a stark contrast to the characters in Blindness who never seem able to figure their surroundings out even after being in a certain location for a period of time.
As it grows clear that Roy intends to kill Cheyenne, she’s determined to escape. Her strength and desire to survive come into clear focus as she figures out how to escape. Many writers, Saramago included, would not have considered giving Cheyenne the determination and ability to escape on her own. Likely, they would deem it unbelievable, if they thought about it at all. Henry is not afraid to give Cheyenne this independence though. Henry trust her character to problem solve a way out, even though the conditions are not always in Cheyenne’s favor.
Henry establishes Cheyenne’s ability to live in a sighted world. By the time she escapes, we believe it possible. From her early tussles with Griffin to her gathering of information through other senses to background stories about her daily interactions, we not only root for Cheyenne to survive, but we believe she might be able to accomplish it. As these layers peel back, we find our preconceived notions taking a new perspective into hand. “Remembering the yard had been littered with junk, she took short steps, feeling with each foot before committing her full weight. Her right arm was folded across her belly like a bumper, and she swung her left arm like a feeler. Cheyenne was alert to every sound, every smell, every bit of information,” (Henry, 159). By this point, I think little doubt exist in our minds that she can at least attempt this escape.
Cheyenne takes what she has at hand to help her. She breaks off a car antenna to use as a cane. Eventually, she realizes the dog, Duke, might be used as a make-shift guide dog. Duke is a rough dog, used to abuse, but Cheyenne has learned to handle dogs, so she’s able to soothe him and take him with her through the woods surrounding the property. When Duke runs off because of the sound of an animal, Cheyenne is at a disadvantage, but she continues on, using a branch as a cane. “Cheyenne continued to tap her way forward, turning her head from side-to-side, alert for sounds that reflected back to her. Trying to sense objects before she ran into them,” (Henry, 168). Cheyenne has less than ideal circumstances to cope with, but she’s not going to sit still and wait to be killed. She takes her fate into her own hands, and Henry has the courage to create a blind character that can overcome the obstacles in her path.
In addition to Cheyenne’s strength, we see her ability to connect with others. Henry portrays the relationship between Cheyenne and Griffin the way she would between characters without disabilities. Henry took her power as a writer and did her best to breathe life into Cheyenne. In a narrative about a blind girl who is kidnapped by thugs, you don’t expect the girl to fight back and attempt escape. This makes the story so engaging because most readers will go into it thinking they know the outcome. But Henry presents a balanced narrative that is a breath of fresh air in regards to disabled characters.
As Cheyenne and Griffin build trust, we realize Cheyenne is more than her blindness. She’s not a metaphor or a cautionary tale or representing an ideal. She’s an amalgamation of real sixteen-year-olds. She’s blind, and it’s not always easy for her, but she has a life beyond being blind. She’s able to connect with Griffin because she’s not rendered emotionally stunted by her disability. The interactions between the two demonstrate that Cheyenne is much more well-rounded and interesting than the characters in Blindness.
In Blindness, the characters do not connect or relate to each other because of blindness. Despite dealing with the same circumstance, we are led to believe that being blind no longer allows them to connect on a fundamental level. The doctor sleeps with the girl with the sunglasses because he thinks that being blind, he can no longer connect with his sighted wife.
In Girl Stolen, Henry shows that disability does not have to be a barrier to relating to other human beings. Griffin and Cheyenne find common ground. Even though Griffin kidnapped her and has not helped much to release her, Cheyenne begins to trust him enough to share personal stories. Griffin wants to help her but feels stuck between doing what is right and getting his father’s approval. They have conversations about family and school and Cheyenne’s blindness. Griffin protects her from TJ and Jimbo, who cannot be trusted to keep their hands off her.
This connection begins on page one-hundred-eighteen, Cheyenne and Griffin swap stories about school. They find they relate to the other as Cheyenne divulges she misses reading print, and she’s slow with Braille, and Griffin confesses he has difficulty reading. A common bond develops as the teens get to know one another in less than ideal circumstances. Cheyenne’s mom is dead, and Griffin’s is missing. Both missing their mothers, they find another reason to connect.
Starting on page one-hundred-forty-six, Griffin talks about how he suffered severe burns when his dad’s meth lab blew up. Cheyenne lost her vision when a car hit her and her mom while walking. Each has lived through tragedy and hardship, and they begin to feel a chord binding them together. Henry allows this bond to form, revealing both characters to be complex. Griffin is more than a criminal, and Cheyenne is more than a blind girl. This connection is what allows the teens to help each other in the end.
The bond that develops between the teens accomplishes several things. Their dialogue provides information, giving us background. It also allows Cheyenne to be viewed as a regular teen, sharing fears and concerns and likes and dislikes, much like her peers. It heightens the situation as we witness two teens in a dire scenario. Tension is amped as readers wonder if Griffin’s growing interest for Cheyenne will move him to help her escape. And it ultimately shows that a blind person can easily connect with another human-being, even during a crisis.
In creative writing, one of the first lessons we learn is to create characters with complexity, and in Girl Stolen, Henry presents just that, characters with depth. Cheyenne is not weak and pathetic, but she’s also not above human emotions and reactions. In the following quote, we see her honesty along with her fierceness.
Now here she was, blind, kidnapped, tied up, and going who knows where with a criminal. Her cell phone was gone, and she was very sick. ‘No,’ Cheyenne mouthed the word to herself. She had to stay on track. Think. She was blind, that was a fact that was her greatest weakness, but could she somehow use it to her advantage? And there were a few advantages to being blind. For one thing, she knew how to use all her other senses in a way most sighted people didn’t. (Henry, 22-23)
She’s not a super-blind character, such as Daredevil, possessing super-human abilities. Nor is she a pathetic character, incapable of caring for herself, to be pitied such as those in Blindness. Cheyenne has complexity, wishing for sight to make escape easier, but able to cope in a realistic manner, figuring out how to work the situation to her advantage. We can relate to Cheyenne even if we are not blind. Distinctions connecting humans reveal themselves in this story, and we can find ourselves relating to Cheyenne.
Henry’s honesty provides a balanced perspective on blindness. One example of this deals with Cheyenne reflecting on a cure. While many blind people don’t crave a “cure,” some do, and either way of thinking is okay. Cheyenne reflects as she attempts to untie her bindings:
And deep inside herself, Cheyenne cherished the hope that someday she would see again. Every few months, her dad would read her some story in the paper about experiments with computers or implants. Danielle didn’t like that he read these stories to Cheyenne. She talked about raising false hope, but Cheyenne had long ago decided that she would rather have false hope than no hope at all. (Henry, 49)
It’s not uncommon, especially for those who lose sight later in life to research a medicine or procedure that can correct vision loss. Currently, very little can be done, and much depends on the type of vision loss, but plenty of research is happening around conditions causing vision loss. Henry has done her homework. These are nuggets she would only know had she researched and interviewed real blind people. This knowledge brings a crucial, credible element to the story lacking in Blindness.
Cheyenne is a strong, capable blind character, full of vitality. She’s a normal teenager who happens to be blind. But she’s also real, thinking and feeling the way most people in her situation do, regarding both blindness and her kidnapping. She’s adjusted to blindness, learning nonvisual skills. She mentions how she can navigate without sighted assistance with her white cane or guide dog, Phantom. She can still put make-up on by herself. She reads books, shops, has friends, describing a normal teenage existence. And yet, she still holds out hope to see again. This is a natural, human emotion, and Henry does well to portray Cheyenne this way. Not every blind reader will connect with this, but many will. And it further lends complexity to Cheyenne.
There are writing concerns within the text. This story could be enhanced by full scenes. Henry does a lot of explaining in the narration when it comes to how Cheyenne does things nonvisually. Throughout the novel, we are privy to Cheyenne’s thoughts, telling us how blind people do this-and-that. What would have been more effective is if Henry created full scenes, showing Cheyenne in action. If readers witnessed her using nonvisual skills, it could make more sense than trying to provide an explanation. Showing Cheyenne doing things could also potentially allow certain things to be unique to her character and not generalizations to all blind people. Henry missed an opportunity to have a richer narrative by creating more scenes.
Cheyenne talks to herself inside her head a lot, and this is where exposition happens, but rarely is there a scene. Sometimes there’s a reported scene, but not often a full scene that could make the flashbacks more powerful. On page ninety-four, when she thinks about losing her sight and going to a school for the blind, it’s primarily information all told to us.
When Cheyenne reflects, Henry falls into the trap of telling in the narration instead of trying to show. Moments when Cheyenne reflects specifically about becoming blind, or when authorial interjection happens, trying to toss in an explanation of how something is done by Cheyenne, it could have had more of a lasting effect had it been done as a scene where we are shown.
There also seems to be a need to over-explain, as if readers will become confused by Cheyenne’s actions. For example, as Griffin talks to her, Cheyenne just wants him to leave. “She pulled the quilt back over her head and closed her eyes. She didn’t need to do that for it to be dark, of course, but it was a way of signaling that she didn’t want to talk anymore,” (Henry, 106). It seems obvious why she pulls the blanket over her head as Griffin rambles on. We understand that Cheyenne does not require drowning out light, and it’s an unnecessary explanation. Henry could have stopped at the first sentence and left it there. Nothing would have been over-stated, and it would clean up the text a bit too.
Despite these flaws in the crafting of this story, when compared to a novel like Blindness, Girl Stolen presents a more realistic picture of blindness. When we create characters, we want complex, three-dimensional characters that are relatable and realistic. What is realistic to one reader might not be for another, often based on personal experience and preconceived notions. But Cheyenne is a brave, intelligent, capable young girl who doesn’t let blindness stop her from trying to survive a life-and-death situation. From the moment she wrestles Griffin in the car, we are aware Cheyenne is not a character willing to be a victim that doesn’t fight back. By the time she escapes, eventually making it out, we don’t think Cheyenne is unrealistic. We have been presented with a new perspective on blindness through a character that has much more depth and vitality than many representations of blindness that have come before.
Henry takes her power as creator and does not fall back on societal perceptions. She seizes the opportunity to consider a new mindset towards blindness and what a blind character might be capable of. Her imagination is not limited by antiquated perceptions, pervasive in literature. Henry takes a stance, providing readers with a realistic, positive example of a blind person.
Art has the power to influence and persuade. It is the artist of an era that often make the biggest impact on a generation. From Medieval passion lays to pamphlets distributed during the Renaissance to literature created during the Civil Rights movement, art and writing has moved agendas, changed minds and sparked revolutions. As people with disabilities still fight for equality and fair treatment, it’s time artist stop relying on societal perceptions and begin joining the disability movement. Everyone in life has struggles and obstacles, disabled and non-disabled, but to insist disability is less capable and worse off, does an injustice to society in general.
Consider if characters are fully realized or just stereotypes: In my opinion, Saramago not only relies on stereotypes of blindness, but he takes prejudices and degrades an entire minority. Henry has a more balanced approach, believing a blind character capable and strong. How do these characters affect society? They have the potential to push antiquated beliefs as Saramago does, or they can persuade, open minds to a new ideal, as Henry does.
Characters must be authentic and realistic, full of complexity. But writers must be fair and mindful, especially if working with material outside of their personal experience. The responsibility to be fair and just is a great weight, but writers need to be diligent, researching as many avenues as possible before committing pen to paper. Truth should always be sought, and when dealing with disability, we need to be open, removing preconceived concepts, and listen to those of us in the disability community. We need to be responsible with our power as artist, committing to realism and not depending on societal perceptions to inform our craft.

Works Cited

“Bible Dictionary: Blindness.” The Official Scriptures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 2006. Web. January 18, 2018.
Fetter, James. “A False Image of Blindness.” Braille Monitor, vol. 51, no. 11, http://www.nfb.org, December 2008. Web. Accessed: January, 21, 2018.
Good Reads. James Mason Community Book Club, Aug. 9, 2010, http://www.goodreads.com, 2018. Web. Accessed: March 27, 2018.
Henry, April. Girl Stolen. New York City: Christy Ottaviano Books, 2010. Kindel.
Jernigan, Kenneth. “Blindness: Is Literature Against Us?” http://www.nfb.org, 1999. Web. Accessed: January, 8, 2018.
Saramago,Jose. Blindness. New York City: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1998. Kindel.
Wonder, Gary. “Whose Child is this if Mom and Dad are Blind.” Braille Monitor, vol. 53, no. 10, November 2010. Web. Accessed: February, 15, 2018.

By LitMommy

Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter is a mom and writer from Omaha, Nebraska but recently relocated to Urbandale, IA. When she’s not chasing children, picking up messes or reorganizing the house, she enjoys yoga or reading to relax. In her spare time (A.K.A. her dreams) she’s a Broadway star. Kuenning-Pollpeter is a freelance marketer during the day, a creative writer at night. Her work has appeared in the Brevity blog, The Omaha World Herald, 13th Floor, Misbehaving Nebraskans, Hippocampus, Emerging Nebraska Writers and Random Sample Review. She has her BFA and MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska Omaha. Her essay “The Body” was a McKenna Fellowship finalist, and her essay “Imperfection” was a 2020 Best of the Net Nominee. She is blind and writes frequently about disability. She’s working on a memoir about the disabled feminine experience. With the kids though, expect it in stores in about a decade.

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