The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas Ursula K. Le Guin - Classic Spec

Forty years later, Omelas still haunts Classic Spec: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

Nerdclave’s Classic Spec is a regular look back at formative short science fiction and fantasy from the 19th and 20th centuries, in order to keep them alive for modern genre devotees.

Published: New Dimensions 3, 1973
Reprinted: The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, among several others.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin winning the Hugo Award for Best Short Story. Its message and impact remain as fresh today.

Le Guin (A Wizard of Earthsea) has writing skill, exemplified in my opinion by a mixture of florid and conversational, genius enough to merit a Hugo every year. Yet, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas stands out. Its theme is chilling, its meanings diverse, its allusions strong.

END-RUINING SPOILERS APPROACHING AT SIGNIFICANT SPEEDS

A Parable in Disguise

Once upon a time is so over. The style of a philosophical parable is dated to the point of becoming a joke. In short, if you were to write a parable and submit it, you’d be lucky to land it at non-paying markets.

Le Guin knew all of this back in 1974. She wrote The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas as a parable, but she covered her tracks. Because, I believe, she wanted to make an even larger statement about the pressures artists face (more on that later).

It reads like a friend’s idle musings. That is, a friend with a complete mastery of the English language. Le Guin uses this to cleverly hide her story’s parable nature.

I wish I could convince you. 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.

She only says the words “once upon a time” after a whole lot of hemming and hawing, and then she quickly undercuts it with the unsure narrator. She even writes “fairy tale,” and “long ago,” and “far away.” One could see this as a wink to the form and a nod to the reader. “Yes, I’m doing this on purpose,” it says. “Be patient, trust me, and I’ll blow your expectations away.”

Take note, young writers. If you’re subverting cliches, it still pays to acknowledge those cliches.

Meta Fiction (A Shrugging Narrator)

Le Guin breaks a big rule in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. In her description, she leaves–not just room–a cathedral for doubt. One might think they know what Omelas looks like, but they’ve created that vision largely by themselves, albeit with copious prompting from Le Guin.

The open-ended musings, from a lesser writer, would be seen as distracting. However, in this snapshot of a city, it’s perfectly at home. And Le Guinn’s writing is so exquisite, no matter the perspective she employs, that I could read her depiction of a phone book.

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. For instance, how about technology? I think that there would be no cars or helicopters in and above the streets; this follows from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people. Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive. In the middle category, however–that of the unnecessary but undestructive, that of comfort, luxury, exuberance, etc.–they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that; it doesn’t matter. As you like it.

However, on second inspection, one will find that she has used this open-ended space to tap dance a beautiful circle around a crucial foreshadow. She wants to set up the people of Omelas as happy, but “undestructive.” This will have great, ironic significance later on. Because she’s not dramatizing a plot in this parable, she has freedom to play with how she emphasizes things. Here, she can focus on setting you up, slighting the foreshadowing so as to more fully subvert your expectations later on.

All of the musings are also exceedingly wise, and pointed at that, with shades of meaning upon closer reads. It all leads to the moment, eventually, where these possible descriptions’ sum zigs while the story zags. There’s even some subtle setting up in the opening quarter of the horrific reveal.

Yet I repeat that these were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians. They were not less complex than us. The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.

In retroactive thanks to later events, that passage turns the story into a meta commentary of how a writer feels pressure to invent an evil in order to justify good. How there exists an opinion that a world with only good and only happiness is somehow implausible. You know, that cracked and worn expression: you can’t have the good without the bad.

Of course, in Omelas, this is absolutely true.

The Pharmakos (The Scapegoat)

Okay, so I’ve waited this long to spoil Omelas for you. I cannot wait a sentence longer.

Everyone in Omelas enjoys complete comfort, presumably through some kind of magic, so long as they keep one sickly boy in perpetual imprisonment and torture.

They do not live in ignorance, and many go visit the poor kid at least once.

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.

As said before, the narrator cannot make up his or her mind as to what Omelas is like. The happy stuff, that is. It seems quite concrete on the matters of the child and the consequences for freeing it.

In a way, and I soften this statement only because there are varied themes and sub-themes in Omelas, this is an allusion to a scapegoat.

scapegoat, Hebrew Saʿir La-ʿazaʾzel, (“goat for Azazel”), in the Old Testament ritual of Yom Kippur (Lev. 16:8–10), a goat symbolically burdened with the sins of the Jewish people. Some scholars believe that the animal was chosen by lot to placate Azazel, a wilderness demon, then thrown over a precipice outside Jerusalem to rid the nation of its iniquities. By extension, a scapegoat has come to mean any group or individual that innocently bears the blame of others.(Encyclopedia Britannica)

By extension, however, and perhaps a more specific analogy, the child represents the Grecian Pharmākos.

pharmākos, in Greek religion, a human scapegoat used in certain state rituals. In Athens, for example, a man and a woman who were considered ugly were selected as scapegoats each year. At the festival of the Thargelia in May or June, they were feasted, led round the town, beaten with green twigs, and driven out or killed with stones. The practice in Colophon, on the coast of Asia Minor (the part of modern Turkey that lies in Asia) was described by the 6th-century-bc poet Hipponax (fragments 5–11). An especially ugly man was honoured by the community with a feast of figs, barley soup, and cheese. Then he was whipped with fig branches, with care that he was hit seven times on his phallus, before being driven out of town. (Medieval sources said that the Colophonian pharmākoswas burned and his ashes scattered in the sea.) The custom was meant to rid the place annually of ill luck.The 5th-century Athenian practice of ostracism has been described as a rationalized and democratic form of the custom. The biblical practice of driving the scapegoat from the community, described in Leviticus 16, gave a name to this widespread custom, which was said by the French intellectual René Girard to explain the basis of all human societies.

(Encyclopedia Britannica)

However, one can see Le Guin flipped something important, which makes The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas metaphorically rewarding. In Omelas, the scapegoat is not driven out of the city. He or she is locked up and contained within the city.

Modern iterations of both the Omelas child and the classical scapegoat can be seen both before and after The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.

Jerry/“Garry”/”Larry” Gergich from Parks and Recreation, Meg on Family Guy, Desmond Hume in the hatch on Lost, and even Batman at the end of The Dark Knight, albeit self-imposed.

The Needs of the Few

This is a nerd site, so you’ve got to be familiar with the term “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” so spaketh Spock. Now, Spock says this for the first time in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, specifically talking about a triage decision.

Of course, this same sentiment has been attributed, much earlier, to Aristotle (arguably the grandfather of logic), “The securing of one individual’s good is cause for rejoicing, but to secure the good of a nation or of a city-state is nobler and more divine.”

These are not blank checks, and taking them to imply a political structure is over simplification, but let’s take the sentiment and compare it to that in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.

Because, interestingly, the story does not try to counter the idea’s validity or ignore its existence. In fact, there is explicit recognition on the part of the Omelas.

They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. 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.

There is no talk of staging a prison break. No hope to somehow aid this poor child. One might assume the power in place is too great, but there is also the impression that the individual Omelas does not wish to preclude their countrymen from enjoying paradise. There are even those who rationalize their way into tacit agreement.

Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in.

You may be able to surmise the ending, and the way that some Omelas reconcile this moral divide, but I won’t spoil it. Anything with the emotional power of Le Guin’s closing deserves to be preserved.

In Conclusion

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is timeless. It draws from inspiration thousands of years prior, from religious texts to Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, and it will inspire generations of writers to come.

Check out Le Guin’s website for more information about the author, as well as collected essays and excerpts.

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Jason writes fiction, then writes about other, more talented writers of fiction. It's a vicious cycle that he's found works better with coffee. He invites you to follow him on Twitter so that he can stop talking about himself in the third person.

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