One must go through the deep experience of sickness and death to arrive at a higher sanity and health; in just the same way that one must have a knowledge of sin in order to find redemption. "There are," Hans Castorp once says, "two ways of life: one is the regular, direct and good way; the other is bad, it leads through death, and that is the way of genius."
--Thomas Mann, "The Making of The Magic Mountain" (726-27)
Almost a quarter century after John Sturrock described Henry Green as "an extraordinarily good, scandalously obscure novelist" (1023), Green's novels are undergoing a timid renaissance, thanks to the recent publication of Jeremy Treglown's biography of the author and industrialist. Henry Green's relative obscurity is at least partly due to his equivocal position within his literary generation. A contemporary of Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, and Anthony Powell, Green's attitude towards literature and desire to experiment with the form of the novel show his affinity with James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, writers of the previous generation. Edward Stokes classifies Green as "belong[ing] to the tradition of such highly conscious artists as Joyce and Virginia Woolf; his work, like theirs, requires, for anything approaching full understanding, the kind of alert and careful reading and re-reading that is usually associated with poetry rather than with prose fiction" (88). Too young to have had any involvement in the War, but nonetheless profoundly marked by its side- and after-effects, especially since his family took in and nursed a number of wounded and traumatized soldiers, Green falls between two stools. Green's consciousness of his particular position is apparent in his partial autobiography Pack My Bag, where, in a long passage about the War and its consequences for his generation, he states: "in my own case I had a feeling it is hard to explain almost as though I had missed something through being too young to fight, that I had not come home on leave from the front. I felt I had to make up for lost time which I had not had time to lose" (127). It is his anomalous position within his literary generation, and this alienation from, and yet involvement in, the trauma of the War that Green works through in the complex trope of blindness around which his first novel revolves, making it a particularly good starting-point for an investigation of Green's work.
In what follows, I argue that Blindness can be read on two distinct levels that coexist while, paradoxically, cancelling each other out. Accordingly, the article breaks into three sections: a reading of the first level is followed by a highlighting of the opposite interpretation and a final evaluation of the two readings in relation to Green's own life and artistic career. I argue that the two contradictory readings of the novel are most fruitfully seen side by side as an externalization of the author's own conflicting desires, on the one hand, to adhere to traditional literary tropes, and, in particular, the trope of creative disability or "the myth of the sick artist," and, on the other hand, to break free from convention in order to find the distinctive, quirky, unconventional voice that Green more fully develops in his later novels.
The novel's plot and structure look deceptively simple, which may explain Blindness's relative critical neglect. Most critics of Green's first novel have agreed in describing Blindness as a Bildungsroman or Kunstlerroman in which the tragically blinded protagonist, John Haye, overcomes his disability through his acceptance of its compensatory benefits and their exploitation in his writing. This reading is strongly sign-posted by the titles of the novel's three main subdivisions that trace an evolution from "Caterpillar" through "Chrysalis" to "Butterfly." One of the book's early working titles, "Progression," also points in that direction. …