Colloquy Downeast Blue Hill Maine

Colloquy Downeast

Spirited Conversations in Great Company

FacilitatorTyler Knowles
Date & TimeMondays, November 16, 30, December 7, and 14, 2020
1:30-3:30 pm
LocationVia Zoom - register for a Zoom link

In this colloquy, we will read two novels that resonate powerfully today. Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947) is set in the little town of Oran during a bubonic outbreak and José Saramago’s Blindness (1995) takes place in a sudden “white blindness” outbreak in a nameless country. Both epidemics and the characters’ many reactions to what upended their worlds speak forcefully to what is happening to us in 2020. In our colloquy, we will ponder the possible meanings of the symbolic bubonic plague in Camus’s novel and the “white blindness” in Saramago’s and consider the questions the authors pose about the nature of humanity, morality, and redemption. To what extent and how can we, or should we, take moral responsibility in such a crisis? Amid horror, what, if anything, “saves” us? Which novel offers the better parallel to what is occurring world-wide today?

Blindness shows us the worst that can befall man; it also shows us the best of mankind, what man is capable of to save not just himself but humanity. The matter-of-fact voice of the narrator as he (or she) describes the events of the novel as well as the range and behavior of the characters creates the world of the novel.  Because Saramago uses little punctuation and often no speech tags or quotation marks for dialogue, we will investigate these and other stylistic decisions and think about how they help to carry his message.

In contrast, The Plague is stylistically a less demanding novel than Blindness, less bleak in tone and yet equally rich in its probing of the meaning of life. As readers, we will see ourselves mirrored in the characters in the town of Oran. Interested in our essential need to “understand” and in man’s many ways of finding meaning, Camus explores the various “systems” of belief that we have created to help us through the inexplicable. Ultimately, he, like Saramago, helps us understand the nature of courage in the face of the uncontrollable.

In this colloquy, we will share what we notice as we read or reread these powerful novels and consider how well each holds up both as a literary work and as inspiration or warning for our times and ourselves.

Tyler Knowles retired after 34 years of teaching English and chairing the English Department at the Winsor School, an independent school for girls in Boston. She also taught English and writing at the University of Wisconsin, Boston University, and Dartmouth College before Winsor. More recently, she served nine years on the GSA Board. She and her husband, Larry Flood divide their time between a shore house on the East Blue Hill Rd and a cottage at Parker Ridge.

  ▼ Syllabus/Reading



Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947)

José Saramago’s Blindness (1995)

If possible, read both novels before the first session

Please bring (or submit beforehand) a discussion question for each session.

Note: Neither novel has chapter numbers although The Plague has five parts. I have numbered the chapters for myself consecutively: 1-17 for Blindness and 1-29 for The Plague. I encourage you to do the same so that we can find ourselves on the same pages when we discuss both works.

We will begin each class with observations (brief) about the text we read. Between these and the discussion questions, we will have plenty to discuss!

Session One (Nov. 16 at 1:30)—The Plague– the whole novel.

Albert Camus’ biography and philosophy

Reading questions for The Plague, first sessionPlease also bring one of your own questions.

  1. What is each character’s guiding philosophy and how effective is it. Find evidence.
  2. Why begin with pages 3-7 and not with page 7?
  3. Significance of “the plague”. (The obvious question!) Especially think about the final sentence. Bane or enlightenment?
  4. The narrative voice. How objective is it?
  5. Pay attention to sounds: flail, soughing, etc. and to weather.
  6. Parallels to today’s pandemic and how is it different. Be specific.
  7. Subjective response: Are you drawn to any one of the characters? Explain why.


Session Two (Nov. 30 @ 1:30)—first half of Blindness (to p. 185)


Explanation of Lacan’s  Big Other

Reading Questions for Blindness, second session: Please also bring one of your own questions.

  1. “Perhaps only in the world of the blind will things be what they truly are said the doctor.” (126)
  2. The characters are nameless. Why?
  3. In what ways and for what reason do the women differ from the men. Does it matter?
  4. Communism, anarchy, authoritarianism, other political philosophies—all exist in the novel. Do any work?
  5. Observe the frailty of the social structures in the novel. What is most vulnerable and what is least. Why? Which of these is most essential in a crisis and why? (Consider parallels to today’s pandemic).
  6. Notice the use of “we” and when the present vs. the narrative past tense is used.
  7. Notice Saramago’s use of proverbs, clichés and folk sayings throughout the novel. Purpose? Do these change in the second half of the novel.


Session Three (Dec 7 @ 1:30)—the remainder of Blindness

Reading Questions for Blindness, third session: Please also bring one of your own questions.

  1. Discuss leadership qualities. What is essential?
  2. Do characters achieve a fuller humanity because of their suffering?
  3. In what ways, if any, does the outside world differ from the world of the asylum?
  4. The role of the “dog of tears.”
  5. Use of ritual—the washing scenes, the drinking scenes.
  6. The church scene—is Saramago mocking believers or is something else going on?


Session Four (Dec 14 @ 1:30)—Comparing, contrasting, wrap up of both novels

Reading Questions for the final discussion, fourth session: Please also bring one of your own questions.

  1. Compare the two texts from a philosophical point of view. Both present us with ways of examining what it means to be human and what it takes to preserve humanity. Both also seem to leave us with messages about the meaning of life and what makes life meaningful. What unites and what divides the two writers and their messages? Is one more persuasive than the other?
  2. The role of the church and/or religion in both novels.
  3. The role of words and language (writing) in both novels.
  4. The endings of both novels

Even More Discussion Questions for Blindness

Chapter, pages, summaries for Blindness

Documents Referenced in Our Discussions:

New York Review of Books: Tony Judt  (contains Afterword in Buss translation) On The Plague – Tony Judt

Tyler Knowles: Parallels between Camus’ The Plague and our present day experience with Covid 19 epidemic. PARALLELS BETWEEN THE PLAGUE AND 2020

New Yorker Article : Jill Lepore on Literature about Plagues: Jill Lepore: Plague Fables  – Note: I could not get a good PDF from this article so it is a link to an online version.


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