Sincronía Verano 2001

Female characters in Saramago’s works: a study of the symbolism of sight

Shirley Carreira

Comparative Literature
Unigranrio- Brazil

Undoubtedly, Saramago’s narrators have been responsible for carrying out within the diegetic universe the author’s purpose of unveiling reality. However, there has been a connection between the author’s particular view of the world and the sight symbolism, which was developed in some of his novels.

The first of his novels to present a full development of the sight symbolism was Memorial do convento. In it Saramago designed a female character, Blimunda, who has a particular trait: the ability to see into people’s body. A careful reading of the novel reveals that her ability is not only to be taken into consideration within the plot. In fact, it seems to be supposed to go beyond the boundaries of fiction. Blimunda’s particular skill stands for the narrator’s equally particular view of the eighteenth century. Just as Blimunda is able to see what is under the skin, the contemporary narrator is able to see through the historical register of the time.

The novel looks back in the eighteenth- century Portugal, during the reign of King John V, when a majestic monastery was built at the village of Mafra, as the payment of a promise the king had made to God.

Although the king had been married for years, he had no heir and a Franciscan convinced him that if he built the monastery he would finally become a father. When Princess Maria Bárbara was born, the king had to pay his promise. At that point the historical background is intertwined with fully fictional characters and events and finally those characters that are going to become the real protagonists of the novel come on the scene.

Baltasar and Blimunda represent the mass, the people that have been excluded and silenced by history. They are the ordinary man and woman whose lives were totally ignored in historical registers. There is a clear contrast between the ordinary couple- Baltasar and Blimunda- and the real couple- the King and the Queen.

By bringing both couples to the centre of events, Saramago seems to put into practice the postmodernist project of bringing together the "centre" and the "margin", without giving privilege to neither of them.

The eighteenth- century society was controlled by the rules and moral codes imposed by the Church and the State. In that context Memorial do convento introduces simultaneously repression and transgression of which the two couples are representatives.

Blimunda’s sight is symbolically related to the author’s plan of defying our knowledge of the past events. Irony has been the means chosen by him to bring about his criticism on historical methods of register. Saramago’s Marxist-oriented ideology founds fruitful ground in the history of an ordinary couple whose simple dreams and lives are smashed by the power of the Church and the State. According to the author, the novel is a memorial of thousand of lives that having taken in part in the building of the monastery were forgotten.

To solidify his methods, Saramago makes up a narrator that is distant from the dogmatic fixed subject-vision. His narrator, although still controlling, is constantly displaced by the voices of several- and sometimes unnamed- characters. To justify his intrusion into places and minds he constantly invokes Blimunda’s skill:

Each one makes use of the sort of eyes that has got to see either what is possible or allowed, or at least a little bit of what actually wants (...) where Baltasar is not able to go, neither his eyes are able to get in, knowing Blimunda’s skill, let’s imagine she is here, and we will see the cardinal going up between the lines of guards to meet the king... MC, 75.

Blimunda’s sight may be seen as more than a narrative device. Just like the narrator, she anticipates events, and she also shares the author’s disbelief regarding religious dogmas. Her impossibility to see God in the host shows Saramago’s own view of religion. She, the woman who was born with "excessive eyes", who had the unusual power of seeing into things and people, was not able to find God where He was supposed to be, so she had reasons to believe that God does not exist.

I can I avoid doing it, if what is inside the host is what there is inside man, what is religion after all... MC, 114

The author’s project of giving voice to the marginal is fulfilled in Blimunda. In the diegetic universe she is the voice that emerges and brings out the main themes in the novel.

Saramago’s concern with the anonymous workers who built Mafra is clearly detectable in Blimunda’s speech as well as his view on religion:

The saints must be unhappy, the way they were made, they still are, if this is sanctity, what will be damnation, They are only statues, I would like to see them go down the stones on which they are and be like us, we cannot talk to statues...It is a sin to think this way, Sins do not exist, there are only death and life, Life comes before death, You are wrong Baltasar, death comes before life, dead we are, born we are again, that is why we do not die definitely, And when we go under the earth, and when Francisco Marques gets smashed under the chart, wouldn’t it be a death for nothing, If we talk about him, he is alive, But he does not know, As much as we do not know who we are, and in spite of that we are alive, Blimunda, where did you learn all those things, My eyes were open in my mother’s womb, I could see everything from there. MC,289

The sight symbolism is clear in the narrator’s statement: " man’s world is into his eyes (MC, 237)."

Ensaio sobre a cegueira is the dystopian account of an epidemic of white blindness that affects the nameless inhabitants of a nameless country. Those people initially affected are taken to a former mental hospital that is guarded by soldiers. Enigmatically, the wife of a sightless ophthalmologist has been spared from going blind.

In order to stay with her husband, she feigns blindness and becomes acquainted with a small group of blind people, including the first blind man. As the epidemic spreads theirs captors lose their sight and the doctor’s wife remains as the witness of the breakdown of all that civilisation takes for granted and the descent of human beings into a state of barbarism. To survive, the blind are forced to leave the hospital and face the world outside. Civilisation has disintegrated; people wander the streets unable to find food, clothing or shelter. Life is reduced to an animal-like struggle to survive.

The doctor’s wife becomes the leader of the group and the reader is taken to follow their journey throughout the city. As blindness is a powerful and disturbing allegory of what might happen if society loses sight of what is truly meaningful, both character and narrator partake the same mission: bring out the awareness that there are many forms of blindness and multiple ways of being blind.

In a passage that recalls Memorial do convento, the doctor’s wife finds some veiled images at a church and, in answer to her husband’s remark about the images’ blindness, she says: "You are wrong, images can see with exactly the same eyes that look at them, finally blindness is for all (ESC, 302)."

Blindness amplifies everyone’s fundamental helplessness and interdependence and reveals lies man tells himself to get through the day. The ophthalmologist useless expertise functions as an emblem of it. That truth is what man cannot bear to see. In the context of the novel, seeing is a courageous act.

In Memorial do convento the sight symbolism stands for the discursive process of seeing into the frailty of historical register of events and the perennial concept of truth. Otherwise in Ensaio sobre a cegueira, the symbolism evolves to the awareness that what keeps catastrophe and barbarism away is our ability to see, understand and control our world.

It is possible to trace back the seeds of Ensaio sobre a cegueira in Memorial do convento. For instance, Blimunda promises to go out with Baltasar in order to prove that her skill is true. The narrator points out the difference between seeing and looking, by saying that those who look are a different sort of blind people. This passage parallels the introductory lines to the novel, a presumed quote to a non-existent Book of advice: "If you can look, see. If you can see, notice."

At the end of the novel, the doctor’s wife who was the only one to see the total collapse of society feels that her privilege of sight over blindness has become the worst of all. The narrator refers to her as the woman "who was born to witness horror".

As soon as vision is restored, for the blind the memory of the terrible experience seems to vanish into the air. Apparently the doctor’s wife is the only one to approach awareness. Her last words seem to confirm it:

Do you want me to tell you what I think, Say it, I think we didn’t get blind, I think we are blind, Blind who are able to see, Blind that, seeing, can’t see. ESC, 310.

Although sceptical the novel does not represent a denial on the author ´s faith in human power of change. Saramago is totally successful in balancing paradoxes. It might be said that he is epistemologically sceptical- since he uses his fiction to knock away at our foundations- but at the same time he is metaphysically faithful.

Blimunda and the doctor´s wife share an emblematic task, that of carrying out within the fictional world the narrator´s commitment to convey the author´s ideology.

Both novels could properly deserve the title of " essay on sight" , as they have successfully unveiled "the windows of our soul" by showing that ignorance is a short path towards chaos.



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