SPOILERS OF THEMATIC RATHER THAN PLOT-SPECIFIC NATURE
As another Coursera Fantasy and Science Fiction assignment, I’ve finished reading H. G. Wells’ short story “The Country of the Blind,” first published in 1911. In this story, a mountaineer has an accident and falls into a valley inhabited by blind people who have been separated from humanity for fourteen generations. They do not believe that there is a sense called “sight.” Likewise, the mountaineer discovers that the blind people have strengthened hearing and smell which make them much less helpless than he’d imagined.
This story is deeply meaningful on many levels, and I had difficulty grasping exactly what to say about it. I could see that it was an allegory in perception…but what was he REALLY trying to say? One student on the class forum suggested a novel with a similar theme of questionable perception: Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin A Abbott, first published in 1884. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but it, too, introduces the concept that what we perceive might only be shadows of reality–there may be more dimensions out there that we are blind to.
A few other students noticed the similarity of Wells’ story to the “Allegory of the Cave” in Plato’s Republic. I should have seen this myself, but apparently I am blind. 😉 This metaphor pops up often. The best-known reference in today’s popular culture is probably The Matrix–which I suppose can be considered cyberpunk Plato with a Christ figure. 🙂
The allegory is a conversation that Plato attributed to Socrates with Plato’s brother Glaucon. The idea is this: People are chained to chairs in a cave and cannot even turn their heads. Their whole lives, they’ve been watching shadows of the real world which are cast on the cave wall by the light of a fire behind them. To them, these shadows ARE the real world. But imagine the confusion of someone who is untied from his chair and introduced into the real “real world.” After suffering from shock of seeing direct light for the first time in his life, he grows accustomed to the light. Then he is amazed by all that he learns. He wants to share his new knowledge with those in the cave, but when he returns he is blinded by darkness. This blindness is true of the mind’s eye, as well. Both upon walking into and walking out of the light, a person is confused and blinded. I believe Plato meant for the light to be goodness of spirit or divine contemplation.
Like the people in the cave, the blind people have lived their entire lives without the sense of sight…indeed, without knowing that sight existed. They can’t even imagine what sight is when the mountaineer describes it to them. The mountaineer sees them as blind (literally and figuratively) to the “real world.” Thus far, the allegory fits with Plato’s. However, because the blind people had heightened smell and hearing, I don’t feel that they were in “darkness” and the mountaineer in “light.” I think they were all equally in the dark because they assumed that their OWN world view was the correct one.
That was the reason I thought this story might be an allegory about the evils of colonization. The mountaineer is like the white man who tries to “enlighten the savages” by forcing “civilized” customs and religions on them. Finally, the mountaineer realized that “you cannot even fight happily with creatures who stand upon a different mental basis to yourself. ” He couldn’t convince them of something that their own senses told them was impossible. In order to fight, you have to be in the same plane of reality.