By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Country of the Blind’ is one of H. G. Wells’s finest short stories, published in The Strand magazine in 1904 and then collected in Wells’s short-story collection The Country of the Blind and Other Stories in 1911. It belongs to his early phase, when – during the ten or so years following the publication of his first book, The Time Machine, in 1895 – he produced the majority of his best work.
‘The Country of the Blind’ is rich in symbolism, as perhaps any story based around blindness and sight is destined to be, especially in the hands of one of the pioneers of science fiction and what we would now call ‘speculative fiction’. So a few words of analysis may help to elucidate the story. Before that, however, you can read the story here.
‘The Country of the Blind’: summary
The story is about a mysterious valley in South America where a community grew up, separated from the rest of civilisation. A disease struck the community which meant that people went blind, until each new generation was born completely sightless.
An man from Ecuador, named Nunez, while acting as a mountain-guide for some Englishmen, falls and ends up amongst this ‘country of the blind’. He has heard the legends about them, and regards the whole thing as an adventure. He recalls the old proverb, ‘In the Country of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King’, and thinks he will ‘teach’ them about the world beyond their village.
When he is taken to see their elders, however, he discovers that over the course of the fourteen generations that their people had lived in this valley, they had developed their own world cut off from the rest of civilisation: their valley was the whole world to them, and birds in the sky were ‘angels’ with their gift of flight and their beautiful song.
Instead of day and night, they divide the day up into ‘warm’ and ‘cold’, because they cannot see the light (or dark) but can sense the temperature of the land by day and night. Because they don’t need to work by daylight, they sleep during the warm (i.e. daytime) and work during the cold (i.e. night-time).
Communication between Nunez and the blind is not perfect, and when they are trying to ascertain who he is, they misinterpret his responses and believe his name is ‘Bogota’ (whereas that is the place where he came from before his fall).
The people of the Country of the Blind view Nunez as someone who has been created so that he might learn from them; Nunez, of course, has other ideas and wishes to teach (and lord it over) the blind. His speech is not as beautiful or as elegant as theirs (their skill with language appears to have developed, presumably because speech was more important to them as they could not rely on visual cues or observing body language in conversation).
Although Nunez believes he is a King among these people, he is ‘a clumsy and useless stranger’ whose sense of hearing and smell is nowhere near as good as it is among those he considers his royal subjects. They do not recognise such concepts as ‘sight’ and ‘blind’: these words do not figure in their vocabulary.
He seeks to amaze them with his knowledge of what the world looks like (and the stars beyond), but they disbelieve him, arguing that the world ends at the edges of their own valley and that there is a roof of stone over the world (instead of the sky).
Becoming increasingly frustrated that his plan to become their King has not proved as easy to implement as he’d hoped, Nunez gets angry one day and picks up a spade, meaning to strike one of them down. He keeps repeating to himself, ‘In the Country of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King’.
However, he finds that he cannot morally bring himself to hit a blind person in cold blood, and when he the blind all gather against him, armed with their own spades, he runs away.
However, he cannot survive for long on his own, without food, and so he ends up going back to them and submitting to them, apologising for his former behaviour and telling them what he knows they want to hear: that he was mistaken when he said he could ‘see’ and that there is a stone roof over the world, as they argue there is.
Nunez becomes a citizen of the Country of the Blind, and is attracted to a young woman, Medina-saroté, who is unmarried because her face does not conform to the ideals of feminine beauty among the blind (but very much appeals to Nunez, since she has long eyelashes and lacks the sunken eyes which the rest of the blind have in this world). The two of them fall in love, and Nunez ventures to tell her about the beauty of sight. She listens and appears to understand.
However, Yacob, her father, forbids them to marry because he (and the rest of the blind) view Nunez as an ‘idiot’ who ‘has delusions’. Yacob can see how much his daughter loves Nunez, however, so he speaks to one of the other elders, a doctor, who examines Nunez and says that the problem with Nunez’s brain seems to stem from his eyes, which are unlike those of the blind. He proposes a surgical operation to remove Nunez’s eyes so he will be cured and can then marry Medina-saroté.
Nunez resists the proposal at first, but Medina-saroté tells him he should go through with it for her, so they will be allowed to be together. Although she seems to understand Nunez’s gift of sight, she knows that her father will not allow them to marry unless her would-be husband is ‘cured’ of his ability to see.
He agrees to this reluctantly, but when the day arrives for the operation to be carried out, he finds he cannot go through with it, so much does his sight mean to him. So he leaves the village and begins the long climb up the mountains so that he might escape the Country of the Blind and get back to Bogota and civilisation. The story ends with him lying ‘peacefully contented’ under the stars when night comes.
‘The Country of the Blind’: analysis
Like all of Wells’s best fiction, ‘The Country of the Blind’ is packed full with symbolic meaning, but it’s not easy to see what meaning or interpretation we are supposed to take from it. The story might be viewed as a warning about the dangers of colonialism, with Nunez thinking himself superior to the blind because he comes from mainstream ‘civilisation’ and they do not have the same knowledge and view of the world as he does.
Of course, if we analysed the story as a sort of allegory for imperialism, we would have no choice but to conclude that the story represents an example of ‘tall poppy syndrome’ – where an arrogant person is cut down to size. Nunez ends the story by running away from the people he sought to colonise, so if this is what we view the story as representing, his imperial venture is a resounding failure.
However, such a reading only goes so far, and it might be more productive to view ‘The Country of the Blind’ as a story about the clash of the individual versus the collective. The shared perspective of the blind in the story is what allows their community to function: they are united by the fact that none of them is able to see, so that the very concept of ‘sight’ has fallen out of their lexicon.
When a man with the gift of sight shows up and wishes to ‘teach’ them about their ignorance, they respond with hostility and disbelief. In their view (if ‘view’ is quite the word), Nunez must adapt to their way of life or remain an outsider.
In this respect, it perhaps makes more sense to read ‘The Country of the Blind’ as a forerunner to the later twentieth-century dystopias of Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury, and others, in which the individual finds themselves at the mercy of the system.
What adds credence to such an analysis is the fact that we as readers know the Nunez’s view of the world is correct: there really is a world beyond their small valley, and there is a sky full of stars above them, not a stone roof that marks the limit of the world. But ignorance is hard to overcome when the knowledgeable number just one man and the ignorant are many.
This is not to say, of course, that Nunez is ‘right’. From the outset, he views his arrival in their village as an ‘adventure’, and has delusions of becoming their ‘King’. In this respect, Yacob’s use of that very word, ‘delusions’, to describe Nunez’s beliefs is correct, not because Nunez is wrong about the world but because he has underestimated the power of the many against the view, however wrong the many are and regardless of how right the few may be.
Like Winston Smith at the end of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Nunez must undergo his corrective treatment: in his case, the removal of his eyes. But his experience among the blind also affects his mind, too:
He was ill for some days, and they nursed him kindly. That refined his submission. But they insisted on his lying in the dark, and that was a great misery. And blind philosophers came and talked to him of the wicked levity of his mind, and reproved him so impressively for his doubts about the lid of rock that covered their cosmic casserole that he almost doubted whether indeed he was not the victim of hallucination in not seeing it overhead.
This is akin to what we might now call ‘gaslighting’ or psychological conditioning: the blind are so used to their own lack of sight, and so convinced that their visitor must be deluded in thinking the world different from the way they ‘envision’ it (again, not the most apt word), that they feel that Nunez must be talked out of his wrongthink, until he even starts to doubt the proof of his own eyes.
In the last analysis, though, even this reading may fall short of encapsulating all that the story means, and all that it might mean to different readers. It is not an allegory, because ‘blind’ and ‘sight’ cannot be reduced to a simple X=Y equation in this story. It is, however, rich in symbolism – however we might choose to ‘see’ those symbols.