By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ is one of the few short stories of the last half-century or so which can truly be called a modern myth. Indeed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018), the story’s author, called her 1973 tale a ‘psychomyth’, inspired by a passage she encountered in the work of the American psychologist and philosopher, William James (the brother of the novelist Henry James).
This story of just eight pages contains many illustrative and revealing quotations. Le Guin was a masterly prose stylist – arguably the greatest writer working in science fiction in the last fifty years – and much of the power of ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ resides in the distinctive voice of the story’s third-person narrator.
Let’s take a look at some of the most important quotations from Le Guin’s story. We’ll keep the quotations short, as they are included here for the purpose of criticism and review, but you can read the full story here. Better still, go and buy a copy of The Wind’s Twelve Quarters and The Compass Rose (S.F. MASTERWORKS), which contains not only ‘Omelas’ but over 500 pages of absolutely stunning stories by Le Guin, many of which will alter your thinking in some way.
‘How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?’
One of the most distinctive aspects of Le Guin’s story is the narrative voice. The third-person narrator is not omniscient; many third-person narrators appear to be almost godlike in their knowledge of the characters in the story or novel and even know what they are thinking, but Le Guin’s narrator, who is not an inhabitant of Omelas herself, is like a traveller or visitor from outside who is trying to peace together details of the city’s people and culture.
She often uses the word ‘perhaps’, especially about the child locked in the basement. Or is it a cellar? Is it male or female? Was it born with learning difficulties or is its mental condition a result of its solitary confinement during its most formative years?
‘They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians.’
In the story, Le Guin is keen to stress to us that the inhabitants of Omelas are not members of some uncivilised, brutal society where child sacrifice and killing innocents might be considered part and parcel of their violent ways. They are, as we can see from the details given to us, highly civilised.
This makes the treatment of the child kept in the basement (or cellar – the story is ambiguous on this point, as on much else) even more shocking to us. They put up with the suffering of an innocent – we might even say they insist upon its continuation – in spite of their compassionate and civilised ways.
‘This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.’
As the previous quotation implies, Le Guin’s story highlights that terrible barbaric and evil things can happen even in the most civilised and ‘compassionate’ societies. Indeed, we might even suggest that many of the thousands of inhabitants of Omelas morally reconcile
themselves to the child’s suffering by pointing out that the suffering of the city as a whole would be far worse if the ‘bargain’ involving the child was not kept.
But Le Guin uses a very telling phrase in this quotation. ‘The banality of evil’ is a phrase originated by Hannah Arendt to describe figures like Adolf Eichmann who had presided over the Nazi regime. Such men were not inherently evil, but were thoroughly ordinary individuals who drifted towards tyranny because they sought power and direction in their lives. And millions of others had stood by while the Nazis had committed their atrocities.
‘Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids’.
Although it may appear offhand, this is arguably one of the most revealing and subversive quotations in the whole of ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’. Because it is at this point that Le Guin’s narrator abandons any pretence of offering us a specific and detailed description of Omelas, and instead invites us to fill in the details using our own imaginations.
What this reveals is that the most important thing about Omelas is that it could be almost any place. We can populate it with further scientific inventions and discoveries, and architectural and landscape details, as long as we follow the few ‘rules’ the narrator establishes. This is because Le Guin wants us to understand the universality of the ‘Omelas scenario’. This sort of evil can exist anywhere, even in the happiest and most ‘civilised’ societies.
We should also bear in mind that Le Guin was an American writer, and many of her readers would be American, too. Le Guin stated that the passage from William James which inspired ‘Omelas’ described ‘the dilemma of the American conscience’, so she is virtually inviting her (American) readers to imagine their own town or city when they picture Omelas, albeit complete with horses and summer festivals.
‘They all know that it has to be there.’
This is one of the quotations from the story which we should approach, and appraise, with critical distance and scepticism.
Is it really true that one child’s suffering guarantees the joy of the other citizens of Omelas? Is the child’s misery really necessary for the rest of the city to be happy? This would take the story into the realm of the magical or supernatural (and Le Guin was a noted fantasy author, after all), but there is no confirmation in the story that this is the case.
Could the citizens’ belief that the child must suffer in order for them to be happy not be founded on some incorrect superstition, much as the villagers in Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ (a story with which we might productively compare ‘Omelas’) is based on an old ritual involving an annual human sacrifice that will bring about a good corn harvest?
‘But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.’
The closing sentence of Le Guin’s story seems a fitting place to conclude this pick of the story’s most illustrative quotations. This sentence – simple in its language and yet profound and beautiful in its expansive implications – tells us that even amongst the groupthink of Omelas society, where so many people quietly put up with the suffering on which their own happiness is founded, there are a few detractors who refuse to live that way any more.
Although the narrator does not know where they go, and acknowledges that the better society they seek may not even exist anywhere, the individuals who choose to leave Omelas and not be complicit in its moral crime know that they cannot continue to prosper from a society founded on the misery of even a single child.