Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

We have been drawn to stories from the time our ancestors huddled around the fire and listened and learned and were entertained and enthralled by the tales of others.

Joseph Conrad
Those stories with mythic qualities have even more power, for they tap into our collective unconscious, those memories that seem hard-coded into us. The Hero’s Journey, what Joseph Campbell called the “monomyth,” borrowing from James Joyce, has always seemed right to me in its depiction of an underlying collective memory that storytellers tap into (Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers admirably decodes literary myth-making with its incisive analysis of both classic literature and more popular fiction). The power of storytelling and myth is real, whether or not Jung’s theory about archetypes is correct. We respond instinctively to certain symbolic tales, and find literary themes that address elemental human concerns to be compelling.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” is—she has written—based on the “psychomyth” of the scapegoat; she says she was inspired by William James’ statement that “one could not accept a happiness shared with millions if the condition of that happiness were the suffering of one lonely soul.” The story, which won the Hugo Award, has been included in a number of literary short story anthologies—even though the prolific Le Guin is best known for her science fiction and fantasy—and it surfaces on the reading list in some English and Philosophy classes.

The story is very simple. Le Guin introduces us to an exotic, mystical city, Omelas, “bright-towered by the sea,” whose fortunate residents (“the people of Omelas are happy people”) enjoy a Utopian existence, with plentiful creature comforts (drugs, sex, and music–if not rock-and-roll), magnificent public buildings, ideal weather, and without “monarchy and slavery… the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb.” And, as the narrator hastens to tell us, without guilt. (Is Omelas the model society Swedish socialists thought they were building?)

But this fairy tale has a flaw. This society is founded on the misery and degradation of one child, imprisoned in a dirty, dark cellar room furnished with a bucket and two mops, kept from human contact and sunlight. (A number of critics have seen Christ-like symbolism in the description of the child). What is worse, everyone in this “joyous city” knows about the child; they are complicit in its inhumane treatment.

…Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

It is carefully explained to every citizen of the city that freeing the child will destroy all “the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas.” So, while they may come to view the child, no one intervenes.

And it is easy to rationalize the situation with a coldly logical Utilitarian cost-benefit analysis. The narrator tells us that “the terrible justice of reality” is that this child has been so damaged by its environment that freedom would be relatively meaningless. Indeed, perhaps (drawing from Eastern religious thought) the wretchedness of the child makes possible the beauty of Omelas by stirring the compassion of the city’s denizens.

Except, we are told, there are some who cannot accept the rationalizations and the treatment of the child. These are “the ones who walk away,” who are so disgusted and troubled by the “wretched child” in the basement that they leave. Where they are bound when they leave Omelas is not revealed, but “they seem to know where they are going.”

There is some ambiguity about their departure. Unlike Henrik Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People,” where we can identify with the heroic Dr. Thomas Stockmann, who risks all to expose the contaminated water supply in his town, the “ones who walk away” are—by comparison—passive, not active, in their resistance. By choosing exile they have tacitly accepted the continued depravity of the child’s imprisonment. They have walked away.

What should we think of those who do leave? Are they to be admired or pitied? Have they just enough moral clarity to separate themselves from the ongoing evil at the heart of Omelas, but not enough courage to resist?

The acceptance of the necessary evil, always in the name of the greater good, has a long (if not admirable) history. It was the argument used by otherwise thoughtful American Southerners to justify slavery. In the days before the collapse of Communism, I remember those on the Left who would quote Mao that you could not make an omelette without breaking a few eggs–a rationalization of the horrid things done to the Chinese people in order to create a “soclalist paradise.” There is always a justification available.

In portraying the “happy people of Omelas” Le Guin borrows a bit from an earlier science fiction master, H.G. Wells. The Eloi, his hedonistic “beautiful people” of 802,701 AD in “The Time Machine,” are also apathetic; they passively allow the evil race of subterranean Morlocks to periodically consume some of their own people in exchange for their comfort. In the 1960 film version of the novel, Wells’ hero, The Time Traveller (played by Rod Taylor) incites the Eloi to successfully resist the Morlocks (blue monsterish creatures designed to scare millions of American children).

Le Guin will have none of the Hollywood heroics. Her story—this myth of Omelas—has no figure who prizes justice above the status quo in Utopia. There is no one saying “Fiat justitia, ruat coelum“—“Let justice be done, though Heavens fall.”

I think she sells us short with this—by us, I mean humans. Doesn’t history teach that there will always be someone who resists injustice (real or perceived)? We are too cranky a lot, in some ways, too volatile, too violent. Too skeptical of authority. We are not the Eloi, nor the “happy people of Omelas.” We don’t always settle for scapegoats.

Where in Omelas is Spartacus? Andrei Sakharov? Joan of Arc? Cesar Chavez? Harriet Tubman? Rosa Park? William Wallace? Oskar Schindler? Aung San Suu Kyi? Nelson Mandela? Lech Walesa? Whether you accept force as an appropriate way to confront injustice and oppression, or believe only in non-violent means of resistance, where are those who say no, the individuals who resolutely confront that which is wrong? Don’t we have something hard coded in us that occasionally drives us to fight for human dignity? True, courage is often in short supply, and compromise—looking the other way—is a classic survival technique. But I think of the times when someone has refused to get in line when the personal and societal consequences were severe: The Ones Who Stay and Fight.

So while “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” cannot be faulted for its technique or structure, nor for its prose, there is something hollow, something writerly and contrived, about Le Guin’s tale. Or perhaps more precisely, there is something inhuman about it: the people of Omelas do not share the DNA of homo sapiens, or at least not the ones trapped in this stage of our evolutionary history.

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

The Amazon.com link for the reviewed story: Ursula K. Le Guin: “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters”

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

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