It was more than a few years ago when I first heard of Ursula K. Le Guin. I got The Left Hand of Darkness, which was supposedly her very best book, and tried jumping right in. But for some reason it just didn’t work for me. I’ve probably read the first ten? twenty? pages of that book a half dozen times. But each time I couldn’t get myself to go on.
Anyway, fast forward more than a few years and I somehow stumbled upon Ursula Le Guin’s website. How, I have no idea. Well, the internet, that’s how. But nonetheless I ended up reading about how to contact her and she made some joke about not asking her to explain “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” So, naturally, I immediately had to read “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and see what it is people would be asking about.
Link to the short story here.
I now can share in the suffering of those who want to know more about Omelas but have been told not to ask.
While some have written that the story is about “waking up” and seeing the suffering of others that underlies (I’d say faux) utopia, I’m not so sure that’s what it means. After all, she says the people of Omelas know full well that their happiness depends fully on the absolutely de-humanizing treatment of one unwilling child. And yet, they are blissfully happy. Indeed, they are better to each other because they know what their utopia depends on.
If anything, doesn’t that mean that (and this seems true of the world) some people can, in fact, accept the misery of others as “payment” for their happiness? That we are quite capable, and frequently do, rationalize the sacrifice of others for own betterment. And is she not suggesting in the story that that acceptance and rationalization is what is actually so horrifying?
But then think of those who walk away. What are we to make of them? At first you might think there’s something heroic about it. Noble. These individuals have seen what is being done, find it wrong, and refuse to take part. But isn’t it interesting that what they do is just walk away? They still know the child is suffering in a most horrific way. Their walking away didn’t change that. They didn’t try to actually help the child or even help their fellow Omelans realize that they had no right to sacrifice the child. So, how much better are these people who walk away? In some ways, it feels worse. And then, given our own reality, what are we to make of our feeling such righteousness about any of the Omelans?