The Country of the Blind by H. G. Wells, 1911
THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND
by H. G. Wells, 1911
Like other fantasies by H. G. Wells such as The Island of Dr. Moreau, "The Country of the Blind" is a parable. It is not realism, although the story has a pseudo-historical introductory section and some convincing details, nor is it modernist in any way in spite of the date of its publication (1911). It is a meditation on the nature of power, culture, self-knowledge, and the purpose of life. (Wells did not make a virtue of modest ambitions.)
The preamble is supposed to lend a veneer of verisimilitude to the lesson that will follow. It tries to present a plausible case for the existence of a lost kingdom in the Andes, and it even includes a spurious reference to an authority on Andean exploration ("Pointer"). From such sources we are offered a reconstruction of the story of Nuñez, who, climbing in the Andes, has an immense fall down snow-covered slopes into the lost valley where everyone has been blind for 15 generations. In this Happy Valley or Eldorado (the story is intertextually connected with Johnson's Rasselas and with a general mythology of South American remoteness) a modestly successful society has become established by the unseeing inhabitants. It lacks many of the things that a sighted society has, but it is rational, peaceful, and clean; its religion, of course, is limited to what it knows. For its inhabitants the valley is the world and their culture has its own simple creation myth that includes "angels" fluttering and singing above the heads of the blind people and a roof of smooth rock over all.
Nuñez imagines that he will easily dominate the simple people of this country. He repeats to himself the adage "In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king." But the blind have developed their other senses to the point that they can control him, and, above all, as they cannot understand what he means when he tries to explain to them the advantages sight gives him, he is regarded as a species of idiot. Eventually he submits and begins to accept life as the blind live it, but when he falls in love with a blind girl it is declared that he can only become a suitable husband for her if his strangeness is cured by an operation to remove his eyes. He agrees but then goes out and looks at the world anew and realizes that he cannot go through with the operation. He leaves the valley and begins to climb the rocky mountains that surround it.
Nuñez, we infer, falls to his death at the end of the story, and the questions it poses are by then clear. Is it better to live confined but happy, like the blind in their country, or is it better to be open to the wider world with its sights and far horizons? Nuñez is called by the blind people "Bogotá" because he uses that place-name when he first arrives to try to explain where he has come from and what the great outside world is like. They cannot understand him, but the reader is left in no doubt as to the value of those three syllables: Bogotá is a great and wonderful city whose impressiveness is rather overstated by Wells for purposes of comparison.
The story also questions whether a connection with other people, rendered most clearly in the matter of love, is more important than what might be called an individual's own self. Wells has it both ways here: love is set not against romantic individualist isolation but against more general and liberating connections with the greater world—he calls it "the great free world" to emphasize its value to the individual, but it consists of multitudes of other people.
Another question is posed, one that asks whether we can escape from our own cultures. The blind people are self-sufficient and quite able to deal with intruders, but they are incapable of seeing what they cannot see; similarly Nuñez is incapable of becoming so estranged from his culture that he will abandon its values. He comes very close to agreeing to lose his sight but he cannot do it; he chooses what, as a mountaineer, he must know is almost certain death instead.
The morals drawn from these questions are evidently posed by the story. Twice in the story Nuñez lies in the snow above the Country of the Blind. The first time he is almost miraculously lucky to be alive after his fall and is taken by the inhabitants as a creature newborn from heaven; the second time he lies dead (at the end of the story)—peacefully dead on the Andean mountainside. Birth, childhood, basic existence, ordinary work, love and harmony are miracles in their way, but there is another side to being human: there are mountains to climb, immense vistas to see, ships discernible on the horizon, a whole world in which to live. There is a parallel here with Nietzsche's distinction between the will to security, represented by the Country of the Blind, and the will to power, represented by the thoroughly Nietzschean symbol of the mountains that are to be conquered and the wonderful views from their summits.
—Lance St. John Butler