Wednesday, September 28, 2011

419. Blindness – Henry Green

History: This book was published in 1926.
Plot: John Haye, a rich adolescent in his final year at an English boarding school is accidentally blinded. He returns to his country home to live with his stepmother. He befriends Joan, who lives with her alcoholic ex-minister father. His step-mother dispproves of Joan. They split up.
The description of the unlikely accident and the medical details are sparse and show no evidence of research or firsthand knowledge. (This was written in 1926 and writers didn't bother much with research then). I got the impression that Green had decided philosophically how someone would react to blindness and made his character's reaction fit that preconception.
It's the sort of English novel in which the only people with jobs are servants. Joan and her father live in abjects poverty (partly because of his expenditure in gin) but no one ever mentions the w- word.
I think you need some previous familiarity with English writing of the period to enjoy this. The first few chapters are set in an upper class boarding school, then the scene changes to a great country house with lots of servants around. It's Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell territory.
There are some great characters. The monstrous step-mother, blind in her own way, is a wonderful comic creation.The Prospero/Miranda relationship of Joan and her father is touching. The descriptions of rural scenes are wonderful.
He recovers at home, he is bed ridden for some months, accordingly depressed. His stepmother’s days are spent in Mrs Dalloway type fashion. His nanny is very upset by the accident and becomes obsessed with John.
Review: This is a very simple story about a pretty ordinary young man from the English gentry class who loses his eyesight in a tragic accident. Poor guy. Fortunately for the reader of Blindness, this accident does not turn John Haye into a saint.
Now, you've all seen books and articles and TV shows about unfortunate victims who adjust to their new state and become an inspiration to all about them - lead them to victory or clarify their understanding of the good life or something like that. If that's your cup of tea, “Touched by an Angel” is on soon.
Rather, this novel is for those who are interested in what blindness might actually be like, with or without eyes. Indeed, John starts out this novel with his sight intact, and uses it mostly to make foolish or cruel judgments about his fellow students, his dormitory manager, his family and his schoolwork. After his accident his powers of observation actually improve as far as his sensitivity to his environment is concerned, but his knowledge of himself and his fellow human beings remains pretty sparse.
His opinion of his stepmother changes every few seconds, whether she's with him or not. He meets a girl named Joan, falls hard for her, and tells himself the entire story of her life - all the while insisting upon calling her by the wrong name. He considers his country home desperately boring until he gets to London, by which time that same country home turns in his mind to a virtual paradise. This kid is a mess.
While John is thus kidding himself, of course, the characters who can see are doing just the same thing. John's stepmother can't make up her mind from moment to moment whether to marry John off or keep him with her, or what to do with him - or herself, for that matter. John's old nurse doesn't seem to realize whether or not John has changed at all from the time he was an infant. John's would-be girlfriend Joan, daughter of an alcoholic former parson, thinks of the local men as the more attractive if they look as though they could hurt her, and can't make up her mind whether she admires her father or loathes him. As for that alcoholic father himself - well, you get the idea. None of these people, even those with eyes, can see anyone as they are.
But the novel is more than just an exercise in cheap irony. Henry Green drew high praise from all of his contemporaries for at least one very important reason; he described life as exactly and honestly as possible. He may have created in John Haye a bit of a bonehead, and a self-indulgent bonehead at that, but he also created an amazingly clear world for him to live in and a beautiful way of describing it. And eventually, it's that same gift for genuine observation and sensitivity that saves John Haye from a completely self-pitying life and seems to give him some kind of redemption. In short, this is the story of a bonehead who learns to quiet his mind and just watch the world.
So Green restricted himself to plain facts - accurate description of the physical world, his characters' inner thoughts - and refrained from any authorial judgment of any of his people. He gave us true portraits of men and women from all social classes, with all their virtues and all their shortcomings. And in limiting his writing to mere reportage, he successfully guided his readers through a blind man's world and showed us the true meaning of blindness itself. No mean feat for a college undergraduate.
Benshlomo says, To see the facts is the beginning of wisdom.
Opening Line: “Diary of John Haye, Secretary to the Noat Art Society, and in J.W.P.’s House at the Public School of Noat.”
Closing Line: “It was the first thing he heard as he came back to the world, and he smiled at them.”
Quotes: “Have a drop of gin in your milk. That will make it all better.”
Rating: Good

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