Science in Writing: “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas”

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 The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas, by Ursula K. LeGuin, is a short story set in a dystopian society. The story starts in the midst of the “Festival of Summer” and eventually turns into dark tale that exhibits the high cost of peace, abundance and the luxury of happiness. If you have not read this piece I strongly suggest you do because, first and foremost, it is an excellent, thought-provoking short story. And secondly, I’m simply not compelled to spend a lot time in plot summary. Ursula K. LeGuin is one the few and proud, self-recognized Science Fiction writers and this short story was first published in New Dimensions 3, edited by Robert Silverberg in 1973.

[Note: Plot spoilers are ahead!] 

When I read this piece I cannot help but think of this story’s illustrations. This is a society literally built upon the pain and suffering of a single child. This is expressed through the child’s placement as a cornerstone in the basement of a large important building. The child’s suffering is essential for the peaceful existence of the rest of the dystopia.

LeGuin herself stated that the short story was modeled after Henry James’ interpretation of the scapegoat, being an individual that takes the sins of others upon themselves for the sake of the continuity of a community. After doing some research, however, I found an essay by Elsa Nettels called “The Scapegoats and Martyrs of Henry James,” that explores James’ use of the scapegoat in his own fiction. James’ interpretation usually included that the scapegoat was decidedly similar to a martyr in that he or she decided to carry the weight of other people’s sins on his or her shoulders; they are not unwillingly thrust into such misery as the child from Omelas was.

In Omelas, the child is described as having lived a life in the Utopian bliss with a mother and all the beauty of the harmonious society before it was take and sacrificed for the sake of peace. There are so very many ways to interpret this. Regardless of what view should be considered correct, one thing seems to be explicit: utopias are not possible given the nature of the human condition and laws that seem to govern our existence. LeGuin created a Utopia but drew emphasis on balance and contrast. Duality and contrast are unavoidable, there is no good without bad to define it; therefore a Utopian society is inherently unachievable because with any physical façade of perfection there is a great price that was paid to accomplish such an image.

The necessity of duality and the burden of consequence have filled the pages of most great literature for centuries; one example is The Picture of Dorian Grey in which the main character gains immortality at the cost of his soul. This is the nature of existence which arguable makes a Utopian society ultimately unattainable by our limited spectrum of physical and three-dimensional perception.

The first place my mind went when I read this story years ago was to the foundation of American consumerism. American wealth has granted us seemingly endless luxury and comfort. Granted, America is nowhere near utopian caliber, but it is comparable in that consumerism in American society is built on the suffering of others. Although we are aware that there are people who work in sweatshops and live in poverty to manufacture parts for computers and overpriced jeans, has this been compelling enough to put these places out of business? Unfortunately, it has not, and businesses — not to be named — still go on profiting off the suffering of the less fortunate.

The moral of the story is purposefully ambiguous so that it is thought-provoking and forces the reader to question what moral decisions that individual has made. Critical readers consider the value of the individual over the value of the whole and where their beliefs and morals are aligned. Logic may prevail in arguing that the peace of an entire society at the cost of a single child’s suffering and the acknowledgment of that suffering is a very small price to pay. However, being that humans are capable of experiencing horror, guilt, and shock because we are emotionally and selfishly driven, there is conflict in the decision to continue to live peacefully under such conditions. Onlookers feel disgusted by the child’s state of neglect and terrified about the possibility that that could have been them, but once they return to their beautiful lives they can temporarily numb the power of those emotions. Ultimately, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas highlights the conflict that arises from humanity’s greatest advantage and greatest flaw: self-awareness.

— Deirdre McCormick, Editor

Editor’s Note: Deirdre McCormick is a third year Biology Major with a minor in Creative Writing.  She is deeply passionate for both topics and that is evident in much of her writing endeavors.  She was also recently published in Lewis University’s own Windows magazine.

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