Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” was first published in 1973 in New Dimensions 3 and has been published in many anthologies since. When it appeared for the second time in 1975 as part of her short story collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Le Guin added a two page preface in which she addresses her subtitle, “Variations on a Theme by William James,” and its connection to the story’s theme. Le Guin writes in this preface: “The central idea of this psychomyth, the scapegoat, turns up in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamozov, and several people have asked me, rather suspiciously, why I gave the credit to William James.” She goes on to say that not having re-read Dostoevsky since she was twenty-five, she had “simply forgotten he used the idea. But when [she] met it in James’ ‘The Moral Philospher and the Moral Life,’ it was with a shock of recognition.” Le Guin’s preface is friendly and informative in nature: for example, she tells the reader that the name “Omelas” came from her reading the road sign for Salem, Oregon backwards, something she commonly did, reading the word “stop,” for example, as “pots.” The reference to James and Dostoevsky seems, too, to be merely a helpful, explanatory note from the author, but here the nature of Le Guin’s comments can not to be taken for granted. Critic Shoshana Knapp reminds us of D.H. Lawrence’s suggestion to “trust the tale instead of the teller”: Simply because the author says something does not mean the reader needs to believe it, and perhaps the people who asked Le Guin about Dostoevsky “suspiciously” were right to be suspicious, regardless of her casual dismissal. It matters whether or not one trusts Le Guin’s comments about her inspiration for this story.
Since both Dostoevsky and James have written pieces which include some kind of scapegoat which could be a model for the locked-up child of Omelas, looking at these pieces in light of Le Guin’s story can be instructive. The passage she cites from James says that if millions of people could be “kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment,… how hideous a thing would be [the enjoyment of this happiness] when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain.” James holds the optimistic position that people would not accept this bargain, that a “specifical and independent sort of emotion” would arise which would “immediately make us feel” its hideous nature, “even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered.” In James’s view, people would immediately spurn such happiness. The premise of “Omelas” is that the opposite would hold true: in Omelas, walking away is not the norm but happens rarely and is considered, as Knapp points out, “‘incredible.’ Le Guin’s story, then, seems to refute the Jamesian assumption of an innate human decency; in Omelas, the mean and the vulgar are accepted as a necessary part of existence.”
Certainly Le Guin’s story is aiming for some kind of political interpretation, though exactly what that should be is less clear. Le Guin deals with similar themes in some of her other works, including The Dispossessed, The Tombs of Atuan, and Rocannon’s World. Her story ‘ “The Day Before the Revolution,” which immediately follows “Omelas” in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, is about one of those who walked away, Odo, the female founder of the planet in The Dispossessed. Regarding James’s encapsulation of the scapegoat, Le Guin writes that “the dilemma of the American conscience can hardly be better stated.” As critic Jerre Collins puts it, “the dilemma of the American conscience seems to be twofold: we cannot renounce the exploitation of others that makes possible our high standard of living, nor can we renounce the scapegoat-motif that justifies our comfortable life, [but ‘Omelas’ challenges] us to renounce both.”
For Knapp, there is more to the story than the particular political interpretation Le Guin urges the reader toward, a position which rests on emphasizing the influence of Dostoevsky in addition to James. Knapp sees “Omelas” as being closer to Dostoevsky than to James, because James, in the passage Le Guin cites, discusses an abstract “lost soul” of no particular age, while Dostoevsky gives the reader, in the portrayal of the child Ivan Karamozov, a “painfully concrete picture .. . of isolation, malnutrition, mental torment, and filth,” strikingly similar to the child we find in Omelas.
Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamozov walks away from his life condemning the creator (in this case, God); Omelas, writes Knapp, “itself can be seen as a similar act of dissent, a refusal to write stories that are rotten at the core,” to be as guilty as the God in question in The Brothers Karamozov. “In the world of Le Guin’s fiction, creation, like all acts of freedom and wizardry, entails moral responsibility.” Knapp sees Le Guin’s subject, then, as not only the moral accountability of a society for which the happiness of the majority rests on the abject misery of a powerless few, but that “her actual subject is the proper morality of art itself.”
The Jamesian version of the scapegoat myth is an abstract political idea of oppression, while in Dostoevsky’s version, the person who is the scapegoat rails against God, the creator of his situation. In “Omelas,” Le Guin sets up the narrator, the reader, and Le Guin herself as creators of the child’s situation.
Here there is a further point to be made about trustworthiness. The fact that Le Guin says in her preface to trust her regarding Dostoevsky and James, when the reader may have reason not to, can be viewed as analagous to the narrator saying to trust him or her about the people of Omelas and the legitimacy of their response to their dilemma. According to the narrator, the people of Omelas “would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do…. Even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its free dom.” Knapp and Collins, however, both criticize the reasons the narrator gives against freeing the child as faulty rationalizations. According to Knapp, the justification “offered by the narrator—that the child makes the inhabitants aware of the ‘terrible justice of reality’—is a patent sophistry. To choose between torturing a child and destroying one’s society (which includes other children) is a diabolical choice, not a human one.” Collins agrees that “the rationalization rings hollow because the narrator has told us earlier that the child had not always been imprisoned in the dark room and ‘can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice,’ and also that it wants out, even pleads to be released. However imbecile it may be, it knows (remembers) an alternative to its present suffering and wants that alternative. The bad faith of the Omelasians’ rationalization is implied.”
Not only are the residents of Omelas, those who stay, complicit in the child’s misery, but the narrator attempts to draw the reader in and make the reader complicit on some level as well. Although the story opens with a well-detailed description of Omelas and its summer festival by a narrator who relates this description with authority, by the third paragraph the narrator goes so far as to say “Perhaps it would be best if you imagined [Omelas] as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all…. They could perfectly well have central heating… and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here…. Or they could have none of that: it doesn’t matter. As you like it.” If the reader accepts this premise, that the details of Omelas are at his or her discretion, then the reader is implicated in the creation of Omelas and thus implicated in the horrible situation on which the society rests.
According to Collins, such “negotiations entice the reader to commit himself or herself to the project of constructing a Utopia, a happy world that is intelligible.” As the narrator points out, “we have a bad habit … of considering happiness as something rather stupid”; it is not intelligible to us that a place could simply be happy, so we need a sense of something darker underneath. Because the narrator carries out the process of constructing Omelas with the reader for the good aspects of Omelas as well as for the bad, the reader is lulled into complacency and into accepting the reasonableness of such a world and his/her own role in creating it. As Knapp points out, “sometimes the narrator implies that this society has objective reality, that it is possible to have definite knowledge about it, even if this knowledge is not fully accessible to the narrator or to us,” and sometimes not, through doling out to us pieces of information which are “factual” or “optional,” a grammar which “traps us more subtly” in the creation of Omelas, as even the verbs change from past tense to present to conditional.
Collins classifies “Omelas” as an example of what she calls “narrative theodicy,” a story which, like the necessities of painful labor and of dying in Genesis as “consequences of Adam and Eve’s eating the forbidden fruit … justifies or makes sense of a painful aspect of the status quo.” Collins explains that theodicy originally was a way to explain evil and meaningless in the world as somehow being a justified part of God’s plan. In “Omelas,” the narrator explains that the child suffers so that the rest of the population can live happily, but no logical explanation is given as to why this should be so—and thus, Collins writes, Le Guin is able to make her reader question “a similar failure of Western capitalist theodicy”: there is no good reason, despite the “historical, economic, political, racial-genetic-physical, geographical and religious elements” that Western readers may use to explain the “radical inequalities” of “‘our’ world,” as to why certain groups must suffer so that others can have a high standard of living. No justification can be made for capitalism’s “[exploitation of] the peoples of the third world, or one’s indigenous unprivileged groups (blacks, women, the poor generally).”
Le Guin’s ending, in which some individuals leave Omelas for a place “even less imaginable to most of us,” points out finally that the dilemma of the scapegoat for the American people has in no way been resolved. The ones who walk away are not thanked for their decency or concern or commitment to social justice, nor does their absence even seem to be noticed. “Omelas” achieves its power through drawing in the reader and then implicating him or her in the highly questionable morality of the Utopia (s)he has participated in describing and thus in creating. Collins thinks that this story has never affected readers to the extent that they would change society because it is too threatening to their world view, that, ironically, the message is too powerful for people to hear.
What is this place, beyond the city of happiness that the narrator can hardly conceive of, much less describe? It would seem to be a place that values morality beyond happiness. We cynical modern Westerners can hardly conceive of a place unburdened by guilt, and it is still harder for us to conceive of a place where people freely renounce happiness which is based on a moral wrong.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Ursula K. Le Guin, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.
Judy Sobeloff, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997