One of the lectures was about 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.
This 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, as if she were creating the city as she wrote about it, and 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.” (Kindle Locations 73-75) 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.
There is one person in the entire city who is not happy, a mere child, shut up in a small room under one of the buildings, a room with no comforts, without even a toilet where it can relieve itself. This child is alone, 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 why it is treated this way. Yet, somehow, the happy state of all of the other people in Omelas depends upon the misery of this one child.
“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.” (Kindle Locations 126-130)
The conditions are firm. “The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.” (Kindle Locations 138-139)
But not all the people of Omelas can accept this arrangement, and so this story essentially gives us two kinds of people: those who know about the child, may pity it, may wish they could do something about its condition, but who in the end do nothing to directly help that child; and those who, for reasons left unstated, walk alone through the streets of Omelas, through the beautiful gates, through the farmland outside the city gates, towards the mountains, never to return.
The story is told in such a way as to make the reader feel some sympathy for the people of this city; 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 who is 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, reading some books and online materials about those who have escaped that place, the stories they told of starvation and oppression, the dangers they faced in 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, the things I read gave me much more of an idea of what those people have went through and what the people still there are going through.
When it comes to a place like North Korea, I feel no need to blame someone for wanting to leave. The problems there are not ones that can 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, because they merely walk away., and I think that way because of two reason 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 to where they are going. But the truth is, they are not really any better than those who stay, because while 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 is that nothing has really changed. Omelas is still Omelas, still a corruption, still a lie, still a place based on lies. Which brings me to the second reason.
There are some things the author says about this city that I think are very important. In one particular part, where the author describes the religious practices of the people of Omelas, practices that while avoiding graphic details are clearly shown to be sensual and sexual, she writes this, “One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt.” (Kindle Locations 88-89) A bit 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 writes this...
“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.” (Kindle Locations 134-138)
These are the lies: that there is no guilt in Omelas, and that 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 the wretched condition of this one child. They are guilty of being selfish, of valuing their own pleasures over the good of this child. They are guilty of loving themselves over loving the neighbor who is this child. 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.
So, the question to end this review would be, where is the fourth kind of person, the one who will offer the child the forbidden kind word, who will take that child from its filthy prison, take it to the sunlight, clean and feed and comfort it, and do so 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 that is 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?