Being a dummy, I took two writing intensive classes this semester. I wind up having to write something like 5 papers in a normal week. It's insane. So I'm going to dump the occasional class assignment here; the ones I like the most. For English II, I had to write a paper about a short story from our literature book, and being a sci-fi nerd I chose 'The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas' by Ursula K. LeGuin. So you should follow the link and read it. It's only about 5 pages long and it's really really really really really good. Also, my paper really really really really won't make sense if you haven't read it. I assure you that it also is really really really good, and I've taken out all of the really reallys that were in it, beefing up the word count, so that now it is really much shorter than it was.
The Ones Who Analyze Omelas
The symbolism in 'The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas' by Ursula K. Le Guin is so pervasive that the task becomes one of winnowing out possibilities rather than trying to beef up a thin critique. Therefore in one sense I've picked an easy target, but in another, I'm using LeGuin's story to attempt an explanation of humanity itself. One thing is for certain: the story is compelling and speaks to your emotions in the same way that a disturbing dream feels full of meaning yet when examined more closely becomes detailed with uncertainties.
Le Guin's writing style is delightful, and if you know anything about me, you know that I am far too cool to use that word lightly. A life size model of Candy Land constructed with real gingerbread is delightful. Bleh. But what other adjective can you use for a line such as this one, following after two pages describing the sickly-saccharine joys of Omelas? "I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don't hesitate." (LeGuin) This remarkable ability of hers to not only create a world for her fable, but to make the reader ruefully complicit in its design, makes lesser writers tremble in awe.
Ruefully? Well, you shall see why I chose that word. Omelas is a dystopian place where a child playing the flute is as religious as an orgy, where everyone is happy and fulfilled and guiltless. Except for the child in the basement whose dehumanization every single Omelasian is ruefully complicit in. In exchange for the prosperity of the city, there must be a victim, a scapegoat to take all of the guilt and horrors upon itself without even the balm of understanding why.
You see, what is interesting about this story is that Le Guin shows us how we are not satisfied with happiness unless there is something sinister also. She doesn't merely tell us that this is so, she shows us by first boring us with a tale of jolly old Utopia, and then pulling the rug out by titillating us with a horrifying conundrum. It is a compelling argument that appeals directly to one's instincts rather than to one's intellect.
At first read-through, what I took away from the shocking ending of this story was that the moral position belonged to those who walked away from Omelas. By refusing to participate in a society that allowed such travesty, they were posing a rebuke towards those who choose to stay, live with the horror, and reap the rewards. The place where they go is indescribable, apparently, by an author who just spent a mere five pages describing as complex a moral quandary as one could imagine. This confused me for a few moments, and then I realized that it didn't matter. The ones who walked away from Omelas are assholes, too. What good does merely walking away do? They're not much different from those who stayed. The child still lives in an oubliette of pain and loneliness, and both parties remain aware of this and both parties choose to do nothing to change it. You could argue that the leavers are cowards: At least the stayers are willing to live with their choices.
Of course if instead of leaving, if just one of them chose to free the child, society comes crumbling down, right? Well this is where it ceases to be a useful allegory, in my opinion. The Penn State scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, Mike McQueary and Joe Paterno illustrates why. Science Fiction writer John Scalzi on his blog, referencing Le Guin's short story, says:
"At Pennsylvania State University, a grown man found a blameless child being put through hell. Other grown men learned of it. Each of them had to make their choice, and decide, fundamentally, whether the continuation of their utopia - or at very least the illusion of their utopia - was worth the pain and suffering of that one child. Through their actions, and their inactions, we know the choice they made." (Scalzi, 2011)
At Penn State, the very few people who knew about Sandusky's dark deeds did in fact choose to keep the status quo in order to keep their little football valley happy, like the stayers in Omelas. In real life, such a stark, specific situation is rarely tolerated by larger groups of people; the more people that find out about it the more untenable it becomes.
However, had they chosen to save the child(ren), had McQueary, Paterno and the school president exposed the Sandusky Demon in their midst, Happy Valley would not have ceased to exist as a Utopia; rather they would have revealed an innate courage and moral strength that everyone mistakenly thought it already possessed. It would have self-corrected from what was in fact a Dystopia into something better approximating the Utopia everyone believed they were already a part of. It was in keeping silent, in knowing the children were being raped and in the doing of nothing that became the downfall of Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions, quite the opposite of what is proposed in the parable of Omelas.
In order to make a more reasonable interpretation for Omelas, perhaps it is better to go from the specific to the general, from the deductive to the inductive. For instance: The relationship between people in the United States who live in prosperity and the people who live in poverty. The people above the poverty line know there are people in their country, in their towns and cities even, who do not have enough money to have their basic needs met. Of these people, it is estimated by the National Center for Children in Poverty that there are 14 million children in the US below the poverty level. (Vanessa R. Wight, 2010) Poverty contributes to their poor health, increased risk of mental health problems, shorter life expectancy rates, and fewer educational opportunities. In essence, we are living in Omelas. We know, and we do nothing. If we're not actively engaged in freeing these children, we're enjoying our happy lives at their expense. However, as a perfect allegory the story fails again because there is no walking away from it; we either help the children or we don't.
When Le Guin wrote this story, the War on Poverty in the US was petering out. After decades of US policy from FDR to Johnson focused on helping the underserved in this country, the pendulum swung. People started to deride the Welfare State, and they still do. In fact, the War on Poverty is a thing of the past now. But in 1975, Le Guin was in the throes of the backlash. Omelas still exists, only now we look at it philosophically and say it's a statement on happiness, which can't exist without despair. So it is possible that Le Guin was actually being a little more specific with her penned up child who is described a lot like the images of children living in poverty in Africa. "It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes... Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually." Yet even here I cannot understand what those who walk away are supposed to represent, not to mention that if starving African children were suddenly no longer starving, it is unlikely that it would destroy our civilization.
Ultimately, I suspect that it is not meant to be an allegory for any particular human endeavor. I believe that it is meant as a parable of human psychology itself. Carl Jung once analyzed a seemingly normal man, who had a dream in which "he saw--precisely in the middle of the room--something white on the floor. As he approached he discovered that it was an idiot child of about two years old. It was sitting on a chamber pot and had smeared itself with feces." (Jung, 1983, pp. 157-158) This, to Jung, represented a severe psychosis buried deep within the man. Perhaps the child in Omelas, sitting in its own excrement, is the psychotic id of humanity, something of which we are all aware yet can do nothing about. Trying to free a part of your id, especially if it is psychotic, would certainly destroy any ego normalcy you'd managed to achieve. "When he told me of the dream, I realized that his normality was a compensation. I had caught him in the nick of time, for the latent psychosis was within a hair breadth of breaking out and becoming manifest." (Jung, 1983, p. 158) Jung quickly ended his psychoanalysis of the man and lied to him about the dream's true meaning, in order to keep the demon in the bottle. Such is the way of the Omelasians.
If viewed in this light, the ones who walk away from Omelas are a question posed by Le Guin: What if humanity could leave behind the dark psychotic child covered in shit in the deepest dark of our collective unconscious? Is that place even comprehensible? Would it be a wonderful place, or even worse madness? We know that "rescuing ", or "releasing" our psychotic nature could doom civilization, and so we keep it bottled up. Perhaps walking away represents evolving past humanity's psychotic tendencies, which is why Le Guin "cannot describe it at all," and supposes that "it is possible that it does not exist." Evolving beyond the demons in our collective id would take us to a place where it is questionable whether we'd any longer be human.
Jung, C. (1983). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Great Britain: Flamingo.
LeGuin, U. K. (1975). The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. In X. K. Gioia, Backpack Literature Fourth Edition.
Scalzi, J. (2011, November 10). Omelas State University. Retrieved September 20, 2012, from Whatever: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2011/11/10/omelas-state-university/
Vanessa R. Wight, M. C. (2010, January). Who are America's Poor Children? Retrieved 09 21, 2012, from National Center for Children in Poverty: http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_912.html