{Passivism in Le Guin’s and O’Brien’s Moral Dilemma}

Three decades ago, Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” introduced readers to an ethical quandary that would be reevaluated time and time again in the future that followed it. Based upon the concept of pragmatism (put simply, the idea that truth is the consequence of belief, and that belief should guide actions) and derived from a missive by psychologist William James called “The Philosopher and the Moral Life,” Le Guin’s morality play draws with broad strokes the nature of humans and their happiness on individual and sociocultural/collectivist strata (“Twelve Quarters” 279).

Concomitant to Le Guin’s crafting of the morbid metropolis known as Omelas, the Viet Nam conflict was coming to an end. Political pundit Noam Chomsky remarked in 1975 that “American imperialism [is] engaged in another war against a much less resilient enemy, the American people. The battleground is ideological, not military” (Chomsky 1). Writer and journalist Tim O’Brien emerged from the morass with a fresh new voice and all-too-common stories to tell about Viet Nam, not least of which was the struggle to accept the grievous responsibility of the draft. Although O’Brien’s short story, “On The Rainy River,” is a snapshot of picturesque ’60s suburbia and not a yarn about mythical cities and their cruelly predicated wealth, both deal in much the same manner with issues of choice and passivity, albeit in their respective contexts. Essentially, both present the reader with a decision (explicitly or vicariously) to stand up for his or her beliefs or compromise those beliefs for the greater good, implying as well a third possibility regarding active protest.

The majority in “Omelas” seeks to preserve the status quo, despite their misgivings about the abject conditions to which their azazel1 is subjected in order to achieve it. Le Guin clearly denigrates these unwashed masses as weak and contemptible. As her story’s inspiration, William James, posits, “even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?” (Qtd. in “Twelve Quarters” 279). This act is not in fact an act at all, but the passive capitulation to suffering and evil as both inevitable and immutable. The citizenry are helpless against their weakness, made impotent by the knowledge that none before have resolved the dirty secret of Omelas, and that doing so will supposedly squander the fabulous fortune that springs from it.

Similarly, O’Brien’s protestant drama proffers the humble acquiescence to the government as its first and most damnable option. He states, quite simply, “I was drafted to fight in a war I hated” (O’Brien 44). Given the legal statutes supporting the draft notice, it is fair to say that propitiating to the Powers-That-Be and fighting in the war as commanded constitutes a passivity rivaling to that of Le Guin’s creation. After all, The United States’ presence in Viet Nam was given officially as a preserver of liberty and the protection of America’s vast inherited (and stolen) wealth, even if Americans and Vietnamese of all ages suffered and died to that effect. As O’Brien put it, “Certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons” (44).

Both options are of a variety guaranteed not to rock the proverbial boat. They require no recalcitrant force on the parts of those who walk this road. For the more willful among their characters and readers, the stories once again supply alternatives some degree removed from the despondent submissiveness of the first.

The crux of Le Guin’s narratives lies upon, obviously, the ones who walk away from Omelas, fulfilling James’ prediction of human nature, unable to live a life of luxury dependent entirely upon the suffering of an innocent. Children or sometimes even adults leave in the middle of the night, north or west towards some magical, unknown place. The author asserts that “they seem to know where they are going,” and from that purpose these dissidents are assumed to live even better than the ecstatic populace of Omelas (“Ones” 129). The given description of an exodus from Omelas mirrors almost eerily the desperate trip north that so many teenagers took after receiving their draft notices: leaving in the middle of the night to head up north (read: Canada), usually alone, bound for a place defined not so much by its physical nature but the principles of those fleeing there.

Whereas Le Guin’s pragmatism had her moral characters acting upon principles of virtue, O’Brien’s option (though he never followed through) stemmed from more mundane motivations, interested particularly in self-preservation. O’Brien believed the war to be wrong, and as a consequence, he constructed a belief system from which he almost based his actions, were he not afraid of condemnation from his family and hometown.

The problem inherent to “Omelas” is the defining passivity of both stated options: regardless of whether a character stays or leaves, they are merely surrendering to their impotency. The fabled ones who walk away do so only for their conscience and not for the child that weighs upon it. What is not defined but almost unanimously decided by readers is the opportunity to save the child in question, constituting the first active response to the situation. In other words, it is not enough to merely submit or withdraw; rather, one feels a commitment to one’s god, ethics, or grand karmic parade to pursue a lasting solution to such indictments of the heart.

O’Brien never became actively involved as a war protester, but many veterans did, such as Senator John Kerry (Hirschkorn 1). The unstated, non-passive choice available to people was not simply to comply or hide, but openly oppose and protest the object of their antipathy.

The parallels between Le Guin’s fiction and O’Brien’s memoir illustrate quite clearly the classic dilemma that humans face every day: should they stay and compromise with their conscience, fight the not-so-good fight, or leave for places unknown and walk resolutely away from their problems? As much as we are gifted with the knowledge of right and wrong and imbued with the sense to desire truth (whatever that may be), we are equally burdened with a reticence made all the more unbearable by our ultimately pragmatic nature. Perhaps that is quality of inertia within us, O’Brien’s fear and the systemic rationale of Omelas, preventing us from making dreams in our waking hours, walking away from the sparkling metropolis in the soft grey hours before the morning, holding a child’s hand.

Works Cited

  • Le Guin, Ursula. The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. London: Orion Group, 2000. 278-283.
  • Chomsky, Noam. Interview. Indochina Newsletter. Oct. 1982. 1-5.
  • O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin Books, 1990. 43-63.
  • Le Guin, Ursula. The Ones That Walk Away From Omelas. Elements of Literature. Ed. Nancy R. Comley, Robert Scholes, and Michael Silverman.
    Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991. 234-239.
  • Hirschkorn, Phil. “Documents reveal FBI surveillance of Kerry in early 1970s.” CNN
    23 Mar. 2004. 24 Mar. 2004 <http ://www.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/03/23/kerry.fbi/index.html>.
§405 · October 19, 2004 · Tags: ·

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