Analysis of “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. LeGuin
What is one to make of the city of Omelas? It is a fantastical place so transcendental that the author herself struggles to properly detail its majesty. Omelas has everything— it is beautiful, technologically advanced, and bears no need for organized religion. The atmosphere is rich with music, festivities, and orgies. And even with all this excessive indulgence, the people manage to remain elite: expert craftsman in every art, scholars of the highest caliber, gentle mothers and fathers, and all-around good people.
However, all this prosperity comes with a price. The success and happiness of Omelas stems from the immense and intentional suffering of one person: a small child who lives in a dark cellar and is continuously abused and neglected by the citizens. If the child were freed, it would supposedly lead to the destruction of this great city, therefore keeping it there is for the greater good.
So who is to be pitied? LeGuinn presents us with a moral crossroads, a true question of ethics that is left open ended. Readers may interpret the text in many ways. They may choose to sympathize with the people of Omelas and agree with the narrator. Or, they may choose to make the revelation that there should be no happiness founded on the misery of others and blindness to truth, and if there is, that happiness is hollow.
Omelasian morality seems to be based on the idealistic nature of their society. They see no sin in copulating randomly. It might even be encouraged, perhaps with the addition of drugs and alcohol. Take this line, “Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and the glory of desire be proclaimed upon the gongs, and let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all.” (Le Guin 1550). From this we can see that pleasure in Omelas, no matter how over-the-top, should be celebrated. In our society, producing a child from fornication is frowned upon and discouraged, but in Omelas it is embraced fully. Mind-altering substances are also shed in a positive light. Drooz, a type of Omelasian drug, is said to bring, “a great lightness and brilliance to minds and limbs…wonderful visions at last of the very arcane and inmost secrets of the Universe… (1550). This rampant euphoria can be interpreted as merely that, frivolity that does no harm, or it can be seen as a major factor in the citizens’ rationalization of the ongoing pain of the child. It can be said that the actual misery of this individual in itself is quite pointless, as there is never a concrete explanation given for how it causes Omelas to be such a successful, happy place. However, what is and what man perceives something to be are two different things. As Jerre Collins describes in Leaving Omelas: Questions of Faith and Understanding, “The connection between the child’s suffering and the people’s happiness is stressed, yet while the narrator says that the connection can be understood, she advances no details…If the child’s suffering makes sense, that sense is not demonstrated.” (Collins 528). From this, one might come to the conclusion that the preservation of the child’s despair is so heavily emphasized to make up for the fact that is completely illogical. To further visualize this concept, one may use this example: if an individual believes a lie with enough intensity, no matter how erroneous it is, that statement starts to sound true in his or her head. Collins furthers his support for this idea by saying, “If the child’s suffering is not made rational, the Omelasians’ acquiescence is rationalized.” (528). That is, the acquiescence of the Omelasians’ minds to believing the delusion of a sense of harmony provided by the child’s grief. One could say that all the delights present in the city—the drugs, beer, and sex—all of them seem to provide distraction from the ugly truth of Omelas. They serve as mechanisms of denial, a means in which the citizens use to hide themselves from humanity.
The citizens come to the consensus that nothing can be done for the child, and nothing should be done. To help this one miserable child would lead to the suffering of an entire city, after all. This is what the narrator persuades us to think. She uses many methods to prove her point. For instance, she tells us that if the child were to be saved, “in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed.” (1552). She defends the people of Omelas, who are not heartless, cruel, mindless “simple utopians,” but instead as passionate, intelligent, gentle people capable of sympathy. However, they understand that “the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars…the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” (1552). Not only this, but she asserts that the child is too “imbecile” to recognize love anymore; it has grown too used to the darkness of the cellar to ever revert back to normal civilized life. At every turn, she finds a way to argue against compassion and in favor of causing pain; she portrays the assessment the Omelasians make of the child to be so logical and responsible that even the reader starts to buy into it. Why help the child? There is no point, is there? Continuing this abusive treatment of it is for the good of the order, isn’t it?
The narrator makes it extremely easy to side with the Omelasians, providing “rational” explanation for their actions and even going so far as to try and tug at the reader’s heartstrings by saying the citizens are not free themselves. She tries to make one sympathize with and admire the resolve of the people of Omelas—“It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children.” (1552). If Le Guin’s message was that using the “greater good” model was viable to a successful society, it is very blatantly laid out in this passage. However, there exists a deeper meaning, one that is counterintuitive to everything presented in this story. In The Child in the Broom Closet, author Elizabeth Povinelli states, “…any goods generated from the kind of misery found [in Omelas] must be seen as socially cosubstantial as well as temporally nontransferable. My happiness is substantially within her unhappiness; my corporeal well-being is part of a larger mode of embodiment in which her corporeal misery is a vital organ…the ethical imperative is not to put oneself in the child’s place…Le Guin rejects the ethics of empathy.” (Povinelli 511). By doing this, Le Guin also tries to make the reader reject this natural human capability. She seems to try and do away with one’s sense of immediate compassion and reason by lulling one into a false sense of justification. Every detail she puts in the story is there to persuade the reader to think like the narrator and like the people of Omelas: to believe in a lie.
With all of this in mind, the question is raised of what will happen if someone, one person who dares go against the grain, frees the child.
Granted, the narrator has given all the reader’s ideas of salvation for this tortured individual a dead end. It’s far too helpless, far too institutionalized, far too stupid. It cannot adapt. But how true is that statement? Is it not the simplest capability of all living beings, including humans, to adapt to their environment? This can be seen as a simple evolutionary concept. It might be of interest to bring about the real-world case of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man who “imprisoned [his daughter] for 24 years in a secret bunker beneath the family home, during which time she bore seven children.” (Publisher’s Weekly 49).
This secret bunker does not seem too different from the cellar described in the story. When Fritzl’s victims were freed, they were extremely pale and suffered from anemia, vitamin d deficiencies, and underdeveloped immune systems. However, they were still able to adapt to normal life. Fritzl’s daughter, Elisabeth who was nearly driven insane by her imprisonment, is alive and healthy, and the children born out of her imprisonment do bear genetic defects and signs of intense psychological trauma, but they regularly receive therapy and are living in a loving, secure, safe environment. This shows that no human being, no matter how badly treated, is completely unable to return to society. So, why is it so impossible for the child in Le Guin’s story to have a chance at a normal life? Opponents of freeing the child might say that doing so would cause the deaths of everyone in the city, including the savior. However, one must analyze the validity of that statement. The narrator never explicitly says everyone living in Omelas will die as a result of freeing the child in the cellar. Le Guin says that “the child’s misery makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science.” (1552). None of these things imply death.
The specifics of the negative consequences of freeing the child are very vague. Based on this, one could infer that the Omelasians’ decision not to assist the child is not based on fact, but irrational fear. These “guarantees” of a loss of prosperity and happiness sound less like tangible evidence and more like falsehoods the citizens tell themselves to make each other feel better about the whole situation. They try to distract themselves from the wrongness of their actions and hideousness of their souls. And for what purpose do they do this? To keep their lives of overt sexual appetite, extreme pleasure, and unneeded luxury? Though the people of Omelas do maintain a high standard of living and seem to enjoy life to agree that members of our society cannot grasp, none of it seems to last. Once all the festivals end and the merriment is stripped away, the citizens are left with the grim notion that everything they have comes from the torment of the child in the basement. Everyone in Omelas knows the child exists; it is no secret. It causes their children to cry, and even causes some to leave. If Omelas was a place of such ultimate happiness, there would not be a single person walking away from it. From this, one might say that knowing in one’s heart of hearts that all the flourish and joy of many is directly caused by the pain and anguish of one causes such prosperity to be worthless, empty. Omelas is the deceitful façade, the illusion, and the child is its rotting foundation, its core and truth. No amount of flowery detail can refute this.
Le Guin’s purpose in writing this story may have been to be an advocate of foregoing idealism for pragmatism, or it may have been to present readers with a test of common decency. After letting the words of the text sink in and the nature of the Omelasians are truly assessed, one might say that they are very inhuman. In fact, they sound downright animalistic—perhaps even worse than beasts. Like animals, Omelasians prize pleasure and self-fulfillment above everything else, mating with whomever they come across and indulging to their heart’s content. But they seem to be worse than animals because they are granted with humanlike intellect and capacity for empathy, but they choose not to act on these things by not recognizing the suffering of the one child and trying to end it. These people are supposedly scholars, but scholarly-level intelligence does not assure rationality, and it definitely does not make someone a good person. In the end, the Omelasians seem to be more imbecile than the child, because they choose to continue living in delusion and run away from the truth. Those who walk away are doing nothing to proactively help the child, and it can be said that they are just as selfish as the ones living in the city. After analyzing the text, one can come to the conclusion that everything in the story, the descriptions of lavish comforts, fun parades, and intoxication whenever one desires it, is used to tempt the reader. It is used to lure the reader into Omelas and make them want to live there.
Then, when one learns about the child and how all of those things would be lost if the child were showed compassion, he or she selfishly holds onto to them, even if they are product of something heinous. Everything the narrator says will happen if the child is freed—destruction of Omelasian society and obliteration of their happiness—it is all there to distract the reader from reason. Because even if this paradoxical society falls, what of it? All the unrealistic, artificial, and god-like grandeur of the citizens’ lifestyles will cease to exist. They might all even perish. Or they might return to what once was, what existed before these twisted individuals built an entire thriving society on the immense suffering of one, defenseless individual—a return to humanity.
Thus, Le Guin’s true intention in writing “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” might have been to force readers to bear this test of morality, and, choose not to lay down and conform to a lie like the rest of the Omelasians nor walk away from their problems like a select few, but to stand up for what is right and see the light of truth. Collins, Jerre. “Leaving Omelas: Questions of Faith and Understanding.” Studies In Short Fiction 27.4 (1990):525. Academic Search Elite. Web. 1 May 2012. “I’m No Monster: The Horrifying True Story of Josef Fritzl.” Publishers Weekly 256.38 (2009):
49. Academic Search Elite. Web. 1 May 2012.
Povinelli, Elizabeth A. “The Child in the Broom Closet: States of Killing and Letting Die.” South Atlantic Quarterly 107.3 (2008): 509-530. Academic Search Elite. Web. 1 May 2012. Schilb, John, and Clifford, John. Making Literature Matter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. Print.
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