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In Sickness and In Health: The Doctor's Wife . . . or Mother?

I’ve always regarded the doctor’s wife as an incredible character, a veritable tower of strength, and I’ve loved her since I first read Blindness as an undergrad at the University of Cincinnati, in Michael Atkinson’s Nobel Prize Winners seminar. But why? Because, when the government comes to take her husband away, she lies and says she’s blind too so she can go with him? Because she is so loyal? Because she is so devoted? Because she loves him, unconditionally? And because, too, she’d rather be with him than alone?  And then, on top of all that, because she devotes what’s left of her life entirely to others?

Spousal love. Familial love. Saintly love. The doctor’s wife is a martyr to love. Good Lord! This is why I love her?

Someone come pick my jaw up off the floor.

Please?

For I am realizing now, on my most recent read of this novel, just how much I have always bought into that myth of the power of love — the idea of finding someone I might love as much as the doctor’s wife loves her husband, someone I’d want to grow old with, care for, in sickness and in health, until death. Of course, Blindness takes the “in sickness” part of marriage vows to a whole new level.

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In a way, this story of the doctor's wife seems a possible extended treatment of the story we never get about Job's wife. Interestingly, whereas Job's wife says, "Curse God and die!" the doctor's wife eradicates God, replaces God, toward the end of the novel: "Only God sees us, said the wife of the first blind man, who, despite disappointments and setbacks, clings to the belief that God is not blind, to which the doctor's wife replies, Not even he, the sky is clouded over, Only I can see you." 

In The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks observes: 

But what distinguishes Saramago’s story from other cataclysmic tales of human degradation is the quality of the drama and consequent reflections that build up around the one seeing character, wife of the optometrist. The account of how the dynamic of the marriage alters, how her personality grows as she assumes both political and moral authority, is at once psychologically convincing and rich with possible analogy. She becomes willy-nilly a mother and a god to her companions, husband included, and as such is faced with appalling choices: in particular her discovery that there comes a moment when it is a moral obligation to kill is daring and in narrative terms totally gripping. But finest of all is the way, despite the growing distance between the minds of the sighted and the blind, despite the horror and filth to which she is constantly exposed, this woman develops a growing physical tenderness toward the other members of the group, a sort of desperate respect for the human body, her own and others’, which she transmits to her companions by simple acts of practical love.

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Love.

I've even claimed it to be one of my own major themes: “I write about mothers, daughters, and love," I've often said, by way of introduction, at readings. 

And so I’m torn here, confused . . . in a pretty major way.

I’m not saying the doctor’s wife would be a better character, or even more interesting, if she ditched her man at the first sign of sickness. That’s not it at all. I’m just saying I have a problem with the idea that in her storyworld she is the caretaker, the savior, the saint — the ultimate mother. The fact that she and her husband have no children is especially interesting, because it’s almost as if she’s punished for it. No children? OK lady, here, have a husband whose ass you have to wipe for the rest of his days, and here, watch him fuck this girl with dark glasses and forgive them for your own peace of mind, and in fact go ahead and treat her as a younger sister, or even as a wayward daughter-figure (who, btw has been saddled with an adopted kid of her own, which makes you an instant grandmother too), oh, and here’s a married couple and an old man to take care of too!

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Before I get ahead of myself, I want to try to unpack that moment when the doctor’s wife sees her husband slip into the bed of the girl with dark glasses:

She was standing there when she saw her husband get up, and, staring straight ahead as if he were sleepwalking, make his way to the bed of the girl with dark glasses. She made no attempt to stop him. Standing motionless, she saw him lift the covers and then lie down, whereupon the girl woke up and received him without protest, she saw how those two mouths searched until they found each other, and then the inevitable happened, the pleasure of the one, the pleasure of the other, the pleasure of both of them, the muffled cries. (174)

And then:

Lying on the narrow bed, they could not have imagined they were being watched, the doctor certainly could not, he was suddenly worried, would his wife be asleep, he asked himself, or was she wandering the corridors as she did every night, he made to go back to his own bed, but a voice said, Don’t get up, and a hand rested on his chest with the lightness of a bird, he was about to speak, perhaps about to repeat that he did not know what had got into him, but the voice said, If you say nothing it will be easier for me to understand. (174)

Surprisingly, she forgives them both immediately (although it should be noted that she will physically put her husband back in his place, in their own bed).

Maybe even more surprisingly, though, the doctor’s wife chooses this moment to tell the girl with dark glasses that she can see. She has been agonizing for days, weeks, about whether or not to tell anyone that she can see. So this moment of her confession — of a secret no longer suppressed and withheld — is of particular importance. And I believe it is in this moment that the doctor’s wife fully accepts the girl with dark glasses (who by this point has, not irrelevantly, proven to be a good mother by adopting and caring for the boy with the squint. Having proven to be a good mother redeems her, which certainly contributes to the doctor’s wife’s decision to fully accept and trust the girl). The doctor’s wife thus initiates the girl into her family, which, in Blindness, is in fact an initiation into the only social structure there is.

While other wandering bands/families lose and gain members regularly, the doctor’s wife charges herself with keeping track of her own, even leashes them, and when, for the first time, she must leave them because it’s obviously easier to search the city for food without having to look after them, she says: “Please, whatever happens, even if someone should try to come in, do not leave this place, and if you should be turned out, although I don’t believe this will happen, but just to warn you of the possibilities, stay together near the door until I arrive” (225). And then she “looked at them, her eyes filled with tears, there they were, as dependent on her as little children on their mother” (225).

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Anyway, for the first time, I’m reading Blindness as a novel where all hell breaks loose, where all order is lost, and one woman who is “spared” must become Mother to a whole damn band of folks.

When all order disintegrates, the doctor’s wife is the only person who can (at least a little bit) restore (some) order in their re-created society. 

When old structures crumble, new structures form. We know this.

And in Blindness, Saramago presents us with only one option, as the strongest and most lasting new structure/social order is the doctor’s wife’s “family.” 

Only in the doctor’s wife’s family is there order.

Only in this wife’s family is there stability.

Only because this wife, who was not a mother when the novel began, becomes everyone’s mother in the end. 

Pamela Shamela

Disorder Ordered in The Decameron; Order Disordered in The Canterbury Tales