{A lack of action in Le Guin’s Omelas}

Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a morality play of a rather Stocktonian1 nature, wherein the readers are asked or merely given a vicarious decision and forced to refer to their own tables of values to find the answer. In fact, Le Guin was not so very vague as Stockton, both implying in the story and admitting in later texts that there was only one answer and that was, in fact, culled from the very essay from which she derived the framework of her own story.

As given, Omelas is a town whose very named holds vague etymological ties to salaam, or peace. In truth, it was derived from reading a road sign for Salem backwards. This mythological town, according to author, was an earthly paradise in which the weather was consistently nice, surplus and noneconomy existed concomitantly, and, as Le Guin wryly notes, one was free to engage in as much promiscuity and wanton disregard for standard conditional morality as one desired. Surely this glut of a city is the fatted calf of the metropolitan feast! However, the reader is soon introduced to the abject horror upon which all of the gæity and prosperity of life in Omelas is predicated, which is the complete and unconditional suffering of a small child.

Though the origins of this dilemma, LeGuin insists, reach back to Dostoevsky, her primary inspiration was William James’ “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.” James asserts, “how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?”

LeGuin paints the suffering child as a wretch and a subhuman, hardly the unwitting messiah that propagates the ignominious joy of an entire metropolis. She does not, however, explain to any satisfaction the relationship between the messiah and the town, leaving the reader to either draw a grisly conclusion about human nature (read: schadenfreude2) or assume a magical and exhaustive bond between the two. This lack of specificity is frustrating because it limits the theoretical options given to the reader. In fact, these limited options form the most beguiling aspect of this piece, namely, that both the traditional response and the noble response to said child’s suffering are both passive actions.

When children are old enough to understand, they are taken to the infamous broom closet and shown the child. All are angry at its plight and their own impotence, but while most learn to cope (read: forget or ignore), other—incensed by the “fruit of such a bargain”—walk straight out of town. LeGuin implies that the latter group is all the more wise/ethical for it. However, not once does she introduce the possibility of actively helping the child, except to state that doing so would irrevocably bring despair into Omelas. Either by perturbation or design, readers of the story generally become uncomfortable with the inexorable passivity of the story’s wise men and the author’s implication of options. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” is truly a text that challenges morality, incites criticism, and feeds crow to harping heliologues in the sense that, to some microcosmic extent, it mirrors our own embedded hierarchy and inaction (if not dispassion) for the plights of the less fortunate.

  1. Frank Stockon, author of “The Lady or the Tiger.” The story asks readers to decide whether a “semi-barbaric” young woman would rather kill her lover than see him married to another woman.[]
  2. (shahd’nfroy’duh) Pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. From German schaden, meaning ‘damage,’ and freude, meaning ‘joy.’[]
§412 · October 23, 2004 · Tags: ·

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