“With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea,” opens Ursula K. Le Guin ’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”*
The reader soon learns about a people and a land that leave the narrator filled with both a passion for telling a story and tension over the weight of that task:
How can I tell you about the people of Omelas? They were not naive and happy children—though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! but I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you. (p. 278)
The narrator offers an assortment of glimpses into these joyous people and their Festival of Summer, and then adds:
Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing. (p. 280)
The “one more thing” is a child, imprisoned in a closet and its own filth—a fact of the people of Omelas “explained to children when they are between eight and twelve, whenever they seem capable of understanding”:
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. (p. 282)
And how do the people of Omelas respond to this fact of their privilege at the expense of the sacrificed child? Most come to live with it: “Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it” (p. 283)
But a few, a few:
They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas. (p. 284)
Le Guin’s sparse and disturbing allegory has everything that science fiction/ speculative fiction/ dystopian fiction can offer in such a short space—a shocking other-world, a promise of Utopia tinted by Dystopia, the stab of brutality and callousness, and ultimately the penetrating mirror turned on all of us, now.
At its core, Le Guin’s story is about the narcotic privilege as well as the reality that privilege always exists at someone else’s expense. The horror of this allegory is that the sacrifice is a child, highlighting for the reader that privilege comes to some at the expense of others through no fault of the closeted lamb.
In the U.S., we cloak the reality of privilege with a meritocracy myth, and unlike the people of Omelas, we embrace both the myth and the cloaking—never even taking that painful step of opening the closet door to face ourselves.
What’s behind our door in the U.S.? Over 22% of our children living lives in poverty through no fault of their own.
While Le Guin’s story ends with some hope that a few have a soul and mind strong enough to walk away from happiness built on the oppression of the innocent, I feel compelled to long for a different ending, one where a few, a few rise up against the monstrosity of oppression and inequity, to speak and act against, not merely acquiesce or walk away.
Le Guin, U. (1975). The wind’s twelve quarters. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
*Previously posted at The Daily Kos October 30, 2011, slightly revised here.