The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, a Short Story by Ursula Le Guin

You can read The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas here.


If you could only be happy at the expense of others, would you?

This is the question that lies at the heart of Ursula Le Guin’s philosophical allegory, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.

Omelas is a city in an unnamed land during an unspecified time. Le Guin reveals very little by way of the particulars – in fact, she’s rather blatant about how little she herself knows of the city. At first glance, her self-professed ambiguity seems downright lazy. She writes of Omelas as if she had no part in its conception. The first half of the story reads like a sort of rough draft, where she’s etching out the details as she goes. For certain aspects of Omelas, she even invites the reader to decide for themselves how they wish to imagine the place.

I admit, it took me a while to understand what she was getting at, and I was tempted to find something else to read. An embarrassing number of pages later, it dawned on me that this seemingly lackadaisical approach was her way of driving home the point that this is a story about ideas and questions, not plot points and details.

There’s one thing she does establish though: the people of Omelas are happy. So happy, in fact, that we could barely conceptualize them. These are a people with no laws, no wars, no greed. And most of all, no guilt.

Despite all this, Le Guin insists that these are not a simple people. They are no less intelligent or passionate or productive than we are. They are exactly as we are, except that they have attained a level of contentment beyond our dreams.

How did they achieve this? Well, there’s a room, Le Guin explains, in which things are quite different. In this room lives a child, and this child is malnourished of food, love, and anything resembling human decency. The people of Omelas know that this child exists. They know where it is and how terrible its conditions are. They sometimes even visit, and when they do, they are generally as cruel as its life is horrific.

They do this because they all understand the condition to their continual happiness. In this reality, they could only go on being happy for as long as this child is miserable. Everything that makes Omelas unique, from its prosperity to its freedom from guilt, would vanish the instant this child experienced joy.

So, most people in Omelas learn this terrible truth and learn to live with it until it passes from their minds entirely. But every once in a while, someone decides to leave. They can’t continue living in Omelas while this child exists, and they silently disappear, never to return.

Are these few in the right? Is it immoral for the people of Omelas to tolerate the utter misery that this child must endure?

Le Guin never explicitly takes a stance on the matter.

As for myself, well… I find that this story has forced me to reexamine my own views on happiness and that this reflection has been fruitless in producing any answers to my questions.

Is my happiness as free of cost as I assume?

Or is there some unnamed person paying dearly for it?

Have I learned to turn a blind eye to the suffering all around me, as the people of Omelas do?

Is it fair to assume that this suffering is inevitable and ultimately out of my hands?

Is it wrong to enjoy what happiness comes out of this suffering?

Is it any better to cast that happiness aside, when either way, the suffering will continue?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. What I do know, though, is that these questions need to be asked, and for that, I cannot praise The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas enough. While it isn’t the most riveting piece I’ve read so far, it is certainly one of the most impactful.

This one is a story to remember.


On the technical side of things, there are a few lessons I have learned from this story.

  1. Contrast is a powerful tool, and sometimes it’s better to throw subtlety out the window. Le Guin goes from 0 to 100 in the span of a sentence. To emphasize the horror of a situation, she began with its polar opposite.
  2. The central questions of a story are often best left unanswered. An author should resist the urge to project their own views on the reader. Let the reader carry these questions with them as they go about their days. The answer they come to on their own will be infinitely more powerful than anything they read in the text.
  3. A story can have neither plots nor characters and still be powerful.
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A Hanging, an Essay by George Orwell

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working–bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming–all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned–reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone–one mind less, one world less.

George Orwell wrote A Hanging in 1931. You can find it here, courtesy of the Gutenberg Project.

Wow.

It’s not necessarily the quality of the writing – though it is superb – that I marvel it. Rather, it’s the sheer emotional confusion Orwell’s essay has left me in. More than I ever have with any other essay, I truly feel as if I had walked alongside Orwell through his experience.

Let’s start with some context. The essay retells one morning during Orwell’s service in the British Imperial Police in Burma from 1922 to 1927. At the time, Burma was a province in Britain’s Indian Empire. Burma gained its independence in 1948, and today, the sovereign state also goes by the name of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.

Orwell’s essay tells the story of a man in the last moments of his life. The man is a prisoner – for what, Orwell never says. We know neither his name nor his history. All we know is that he had been imprisoned, until this particular morning when he is walked down to the gallows, where a bag is placed over his head and he is hanged.

From the beginning, there is a stark contrast between the tension Orwell feels and his companions’ blatant sense of dehumanizing urgency. It’s clear from Orwell’s description of the man that cared enough to humanize him:

He was a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a thick, sprouting moustache, absurdly too big for his body, rather like the moustache of a comic man on the films.

Compare that to the words of the jail’s superintendent:

“Well, quick march, then. The prisoners can’t get their breakfast till this job’s over.”

This contrast creates a heavy feeling of conflict within the reader, and it emulates, it seems to me, the conflict Orwell felt at the time. This feeling is amplified when, along the way, the procession is halted by the joyful antics of a dog let loose. The dog even jumps up and tries to lick the prisoner in the face. Here, glee and dread intermingle, and it’s an uncomfortable feeling, to say the least.

Orwell manages to restrain the dog, and they continue until the man makes it to the gallows and a rope is noosed around his neck. The man begins to cry out in a chant of sorts:

“Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”

The chant goes on for what feels like forever, and as a reader, I felt just as uncomfortable as Orwell writes he and the surrounding crowd did.

And then the floor drops from beneath the man’s feet. He dies, as we knew he would from the start. And as soon as he’s confirmed dead, Orwell and his companions are hit with this palpable sense of relief and, weirdly enough, joy. The strangest part of it all is that I felt it too. Orwell notes the absurdity of it all, of the jolliness in the air and the laughter that follows, and he never makes an attempt to explain it.

I won’t either. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.