The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin
On my never ending quest to discover more dystopian short stories, I stumbled across this little gem. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas is a bleak, philosophical tale that, although plotless, has a pretty punchy ending to it.
The story is conveyed via a faceless but opinionated narrator. They describe a deliriously happy carnival in the city of Omelas where excited children play and their parents gather to begin some sort of unnamed festivity. The narrator describes a community of intelligent yet happy people, rightly stating that ‘we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid’, but the people of Omelas are both complex and competent.
Guin adds layer upon layer of uplifting descriptions for the inhabitants of Omelas, but as it builds momentum the reader begins to detect a level of spite and aggression in between the lines. The unreliable narrator gradually shifts from describing a joyous, utopian state to a sinister, beguiling place where rot lies undetected in between hyperbolic positivity.
And then the we are hit with such horrid, disturbing imagery that, even know it’s obvious something sinister is looming, the language still manages to evoke shock and disgust. The narrator explains, in a somewhat convoluted way, that Omelas is a happy place because the inhabitants are trying to make the suffering of a child locked in a cellar seem worthwhile. For an unknown reason this child remains in this dark, tiny cell as a shameful secret among the Omelaians, a lone figure to endure evil, hardship and pain so the rest of the city doesn’t have to. They all justify the situation by saying the child is a necessary scapegoat for their negative emotions, and that they must counteract this grotesque act with glee-filled lives. We are not told why this child is forced to suffer – locked away and not talked to or fed properly, continuously sitting in its own excrement – all we know is that the community uses the child’s misery to fuel their own contentment.
But there are people in the city that cannot dismiss this child’s presence so easily, and every so often a inhabitant of Omelas walks away with no plan or direction, just a desire to leave and never return.
The most obvious sentiment to gather from this short story is that without bad there is no good, but do we ever have to create this negativity ourselves in order to feel happiness? There are countless examples of humans creating situations to bring themselves pleasure and in doing so ruining the lives of others, but is the focal point to create pain or pleasure?
I love the idea of steadfast self-preservation despite obvious wrongdoing, something that is not often approached in storytelling, and there are many enlightened observations in the eloquent imagery, but on the whole this short story seemed fairly superficial to me. It highlights basic philosophical debates without adding any further depth to them, and I thought the emotive imagery to be a little conceited. Obviously all stories are somewhat narcissistic and are a form of manipulation, but the transparency of this in The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas was hard to ignore. I felt Guin was continuously trying to tug at my heart strings, and in doing so I felt very little for the child.
Nevertheless it was a fascinating read due to the undefined timeline and disturbing symbolism that forces the reader to think of comparative examples. It may provide no resolution, but it does leave the conclusive question: would you walk away from Omelas?