I listened to a lecture series called How Great Science Fiction Works, from The Great Courses.
I was actually more of a sci-fi fan when I was a child. This was the time of the first Star Wars movies and the first Battlestar Galactica series. Often I would go to the library and find books about Tom Swift, and even older stories about Lucky Starr and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. Even though I’m not very much into sci-fi now, I still found those lectures fascinating and informative.
One of the lectures focused on utopian and dystopian stories, and the lecturer, Gary K. Wolfe, begins and ends this lecture by referring to a particular story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin.
This was enough to pique my interest in this story, and to read it for myself.
“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” is a very short story, though it may be called a story in only the loosest of senses. It is more a description of this city called Omelas on the day of its Festival of Summer, and what they people are like, what activities they will engage in on that day, and their overall happy and joyful state.
In fact, the author treats Omelas like a tabula rasa. It’s if she were creating the city as she wrote about it. She even invites the reader to assist in creating this paradise.
Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all.1
There is, then, a fluidity to this fictional city, as Omelas becomes, not one person’s utopia, every one person’s utopia. And while I would guess the author would not agree with every element anyone else might put in or leave out, that is of secondary importance to the overall point.
For while Omelas is a paradise on earth, it is a paradise that comes with a price.
One person in the entire city is not happy. This single child (whose gender isn’t named) lives shut in a small room under one of the buildings. Its room offers no comforts, not even even a toilet where it can relieve itself. This child is alone and no one speaks to it. The only care it receives is that someone gives it a little food each day. The child is mentally deficient, so it doesn’t understand the reasons for this treatment. Yet, somehow, the happy state of all of the other people in Omelas depends upon this one child’s misery:
“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”2
The conditions are firm: “The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.”3
But not all the people of Omelas can accept this arrangement. So this story essentially gives us two kinds of people. One group knows about the child and may pity it. They may even wish they could do something about its condition. But in the end they do nothing to help that child directly. The second group, for reasons left unstated, walks alone through the streets of Omelas. They pass through the beautiful gates, the farmland outside the city gates, and head toward the mountains, never to return.
Le Guin tells the story in such a way as to make the reader feel sympathy for the city’s people. They are not unfeeling, uncaring monsters who rejoice in this child’s sufferings. But the truth is still that they accept the terms of this mysterious agreement, they enjoy their good lives while accepting that they do so only because of the one being left alone to suffer in misery. And so it seems that it is those who walk away from Omelas who are the better, more noble people.
A few years ago, I did a small bit of research into North Korea. I read books and online materials about people who have escaped that place. They told stories of starvation and oppression, and the dangers they faced trying to find a better life in another place. It was very eye-opening. Though I had some small knowledge, mostly only that North Korea was a bad place, my research gave me a stronger idea of what those people suffered and what the people still there are suffering.
When it comes to a place like North Korea, I feel no need to blame someone for wanting to leave. This nation’s problems cannot be solved by one common person. I want to make that point, because when I look from that real-life place to the imagined utopia of Omelas, I find myself less sympathetic to those who walk away. That’s because they merely walk away. I think that way because of two reasons given in the story itself.
The first is simply that there are not just two kinds of people in Omelas. There is a third: the child itself.
Those who walk away from Omelas may consider themselves noble for leaving behind that place and setting off on their own, though they may not know where they are going. But the truth is, they are not really any better than those who stay. Those who stay in Omelas enjoy the good things of the city, and those who walk away decide they cannot enjoy them any more. The truth. however, is that nothing has really changed. Omelas is still Omelas. It’s still a corruption, still a lie, still a place based on lies.
This brings me to the second reason. The author reveals several important facts about this city. She describes the religious practices of the people of Omelas—practices that avoid graphic details but are clearly shown to be sensual and sexual. “One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt.”4 Later, when telling us about why this one child is isolated and made to suffer and why no one can do anything about it, she adds:
“If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.”5
These are the lies: that there is no guilt in Omelas, and helping this child would let guilt into the city.
Because the truth is much the opposite. Even if one wants to disregard the obvious and gross immorality the author describes when talking about the religious practices of this city, the people of this city are still guilty of this one child’s wretched condition. They are guilty of being selfish and valuing their own pleasures over the good of this child. Instead of loving their neighbor, this child, they love themselves. They are guilty of blinding themselves to their own guilt, for while they may think themselves without guilt, they are simply believing a lie.
And those who walk away from Omelas have not escaped their own guilt, for while they may walk away from Omelas, they also walk away from the child, leaving it in the same miserable condition. Their leaving has no affect at all on that child, and would be cold comfort indeed if it could somehow know about their actions. Their cold nobility is as selfish as the others’ acceptance of the conditions.
Omelas isn’t a utopia. It is a place filled with guilt.
Where, then, is the fourth kind of person? Who will offer this child the forbidden kind word? And who will take that child from its filthy prison and take it to the sunlight? Will this hero clean and feed and comfort the victim while all the lies of Omelas burn down all around them?
Or, to ask the question another way, where is the true church of Christ doing what it should be doing, preaching the law to destroy our illusions of our own goodness, then preaching the gospel to show us where our sins may truly be washed away?