A 'Psychomyth' by Ursula K. Le Guin
'The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas' is a remarkable short story, often hailed as a modern myth, penned by the prolific American writer Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018). She described this 1973 tale as a 'psychomyth,' influenced by a passage from the work of the American psychologist and philosopher, William James, who happened to be the brother of the renowned novelist Henry James.
The Power of Quotations
In its concise eight pages, 'The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas' contains numerous profound and illustrative quotations. Le Guin's masterful prose style, arguably unrivaled in science fiction for the past half-century, captivates readers with the distinctive voice of the third-person narrator.
1. Exploring the Ineffable Joy of Omelas
'How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?'
This question, posed by the narrator, highlights the enigmatic nature of Omelas and its citizens' happiness. Le Guin's skillful use of the third-person narrative perspective brings an outsider's perspective to the description of this utopian city. The limited omniscience of the narrator allows readers to glimpse the city's splendor, but also its dark secret.
2. Ambiguity Surrounding the Imprisoned Child
She often uses the word 'perhaps,' especially about the child locked in the basement. Or is it a cellar? Is it male or female? Was it born with learning difficulties or is its mental condition a result of its solitary confinement during its most formative years?
The ambiguity surrounding the child imprisoned in Omelas creates an air of mystery and discomfort. The narrator hesitates, uncertain about specific details, and leaves readers to grapple with the profound moral questions raised by the child's suffering.
3. A Civilized Society with a Dark Secret
'They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians.'
Le Guin emphasizes that the citizens of Omelas are not members of a primitive or uncivilized society where child sacrifice and violence are commonplace. On the contrary, they live in a seemingly enlightened and cultured city. However, the revelation of the child's suffering contrasts sharply with their appearance of compassion and refinement, challenging readers' assumptions about the relationship between civilization and morality.
4. The Treason of the Artist
'This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.'
Le Guin's observation on the artist's role in acknowledging the banality of evil and the tedium of suffering serves as a thought-provoking critique of societies that tolerate such cruelty. The story raises questions about complicity and the moral responsibilities of individuals within a seemingly harmonious society built upon the suffering of an innocent child.
5. The Power of Imagination in Describing Omelas
'Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids.'
Here, the narrator urges readers to engage their imagination in envisioning Omelas. The story's purpose is not to provide a detailed, concrete description of the city but to evoke a universal understanding of the 'Omelas scenario.' Le Guin invites readers to consider that such ethical dilemmas exist in various societies, prompting introspection on our own roles in shaping them.
6. Challenging the Belief in the Necessity of Suffering
'They all know that it has to be there.'
The narrator acknowledges that the citizens of Omelas firmly believe in the necessity of the child's suffering to sustain their happiness. However, this assertion is met with skepticism, leaving readers to question whether such beliefs are founded on truth or mere superstition.
7. The Departure of Dissenters
'But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.'
The closing sentence captures the courageous few who reject the compromise of their values and choose to leave Omelas. Their departure signifies a rejection of a society built upon the suffering of a single innocent child. The uncertainty of their destination echoes the challenge of seeking a better society beyond the bounds of the known.
'The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas' leaves readers with a haunting tale of morality, complicity, and the human condition. Le Guin's skillful storytelling and thought-provoking narrative voice make this modern myth a timeless exploration of the complexities of society and the choices individuals make.