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The Ideas of Community in Ursula K Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” Essay

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Updated: Sep 23rd, 2021

People do not realize all the terms and conditions of the present society. They live according to the norms established and prove their behavior with “everybody acts like this” or on contrary “no one acts like you, you are mentally ill”. But these norms and regulations of life of society were not established in one day. The process underwent huge changes and resulted in a society people live nowadays. Thousands of years ago people knew that the Earth is flat, hundred years ago people knew that the Earth is the center of the Universe, at present, people think that they may be not the only thinking creatures in the Universe. As well as the knowledge about the world, the knowledge about human behavior was undergoing significant changes. People improved the terms and regulations of the society common to human nature but hidden deep inside the personality. This is the way of establishing pro-social and anti-social behavior, common to civilized people of the present time. The norms of pro-social and anti-social behavior are the result of the efforts of all humankind. But in small communities, people still live and lived hundreds of years ago according to the needs of the “natural selection” rule. Any anti-social behavior is punished nowadays; the scenes of explicit violence and gore could be seen only on the screen of TV or PC. People disapprove of these scenes no matter real or not, but always think “It can not concern me, it is a part of our life and nothing could be done.” But, how one can be sure that cannibals who lived long ago were aware of what they were doing? The norms of that time did not provide a cannibal with the necessary knowledge and if someone had asked “Why?” the probable answer would have been like “everybody acts like this” or “What is wrong about this?”. The relations in the community are a very difficult question and people tried to solve it during the whole period of existence. Where is a certain mark between right and wrong? What could be changed and what consequence will follow? What will change if people are aware of anti-social actions or not? The answers could be found in different types of models of society both real and imaginable. One of the brilliant examples of such type of society is examined in Ursula K Le Guin’s short story “The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas”.

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin (born October 21, 1929) is an American author (Piazza, 2003). She has written a huge variety of different works in different fields meant for children and adults, but she is known all over the world for her science fiction, fantasy novels, and short stories. Her father, Alfred Kroeber, was the first who received Ph.D. in Anthropology in the United States in 1901 (Columbia University)( Piazza, 2003).

First publications of Ursula K Le Guin date to the 1960s, and nowadays she is considered to be one of the best modern science fiction and fantasy authors, well known for her exemplary style and her researches of psychological and sociological aspects (Wegner, 2001). She was granted several Hugo and Nebula awards, and also received the Gandalf Grand Master award in 1979 and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Master Award in 2003 (Cadden, 2004).

Various Le Guin’s works represent deep research and understanding of the social sciences, psychology, sociology, and anthropology fitted in the created models of separate worlds which belong to the subcategory known as soft science fiction. Her works often apply unusual alien cultures to deliver a notion about people’s own culture (Collings, 1986). Le Guin is known for her capacity to create real worlds inhabited by strongly sympathetic characters (Parrinder, 2000). Le Guin’s worlds are made real by the attention she pays to the ordinary actions and transactions of everyday life (Collings, 1986).

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (Variations on a theme by William James) is a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin, which is a part of her short story collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters; it was awarded the Hugo Award for short stories in 1974 (Collings, 1986). The representing of a story follows an interesting sequence. The story has no plot, no characters, no dialogue; merely a setting, the city Omelas. The story is often applied in argues about the nature and adequacy of Utilitarian models of justice (Collings, 1986).

In the story, Omelas is represented as a utopian city of happiness and delight, whose inhabitants are intelligent, cultured, and refined. All aspects about the life in Omelas could be admired, except for the secret source of inhabitants’ happiness: the pleasant life of Omelas’s inhabitants requires that an innocent child should be kept in dirt, darkness, and misery, that all the inhabitants should be aware of this fact when required age comes.

Some of the citizens decided to leave the city; the end of the story is “The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. Possibly does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.” (Cadden, 2004, 150-151).

According to the author, the central idea of the story is the scapegoat, but it could be seen that the author represents also all types of human behavior inside the community represented by the city of Omelas. The idea of the community lies deep inside the story and deep inside the relations between the community members. It could be stated that the idea of the community refers to the moral philosophy of the community members. Different points of view and actions are represented in the story. However, the story does not provide the necessary information about the difference in the way of thinking of those who decided to leave the city and those who decided to stay. The ideas of the community in The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas could be stated as morality, justice, and sacrifice. Ursula K. Le Guin cleverly and delicately represents the cruel nature of modern society through the community shown in the story. The city due to the author looks real and as Ursula K Le Guin intended is related to present society. The author approaches such a description by applying several strategies. She represents to a reader an alternate perspective of modern society by stating several small, seemingly ineffective changes in the society of Omelas. By applying a single detail – a helpless and miserable human child whose only purpose is to suffer the negative emotions and consequences which are probably required for the maintainability and proper life of a community, Le Guin encourages sympathy in the reader (Rochelle, 2001). By representing the ones who denied living in the society of Omelas once they found out the cause of their felicity, the author makes the reader consider a moral dilemma that each participant of modern society’s enlightened representatives must face.

A few differences are indicated between the modern community and the community of Omelas. Considered alone, some of these differences may seem to be unimportant. But if put together these slightest differences function to describe certain features of modern society that appear to be less than human. For instance, in Omelas a horse was not forced to wear a bit – a piece of metal that in present-day society should be held in the horse’s mouth by reins. The animals of Omelas even looked like taking part together with people of their own free will, having relating to people’s customs as to their own, comparing with a huge number of animals that are held as things needed and treated inhumanely in modern society. Omelas community did not require any stock exchange, advertisement, the secret police, or the bomb. Comparing with the present society that appears to be highly capitalistic and thus could not be imagined in its current state without the stock exchange or the advertisement and other modern community features the most significant of which is the invention of the nuclear bomb, a tool of monumental death and devastation which is widely considered as one of the most prominent achievements of the modern scientific society. Notable, the citizen of Omelas were described as “mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched” while in the modern community “we have a bad habit… of considering happiness as something rather stupid” (Cadden, 2004, 146-147). On the surface, Omelas’s society represents a stronghold of absolute happiness, profound understanding, and sympathetic humanitarianism. On the contrary modern community seems to be a grim cesspool filled with all examples of human sins where uncovered happiness is replaced by the temporary secular pleasures of foolish and unthinking self-indulgence and instant satisfaction. But beyond the surface, one discovers that even the community of Omelas is not composed only of positive aspects.

The author provides an emotional answer by representing a single human child as the scapegoat of Omelas, the ill-fated human being who was doomed to experience all the “necessary evils” of the community so that the rest of the citizens were free to live sprightly. People in modern society seem to be more compassionate to any person than with the miserable bovine victims of a slaughterhouse. It could be stated that the most common victims in modern society are not people but plants and other animals, the concept of the author remains unchanged; in the present modern community, the happiness of some is interrelated to the suffering of other people. Considering the child’s prison, a premise with “one locked door, and no window,” and a floor of filth, the reader may think about the human child as a mechanically processed chicken. The child even stayed “in its excrement continually.” It is severe torture for any living creature to undergo such conditions; yet these are practically the exact conditions in which the animals that provide food to a modern community with food exist (Cadden, 2004, 148-149).

While this problem is not considered quite as serious in a modern community, all the citizens of Omelas were made to observe the miserable human child in the ugly room when they were old enough to realize the horrible situation observed. “No matter how well the matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgusted… They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations.” Without doubts, they were eager to provide help to the miserable and unfortunate child, but they did not act, since they realized that if they act to help they would have “to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one.” Due to this realization, most of the citizens of Omelas would decide to accept the inevitable sacrifice. That was the social norm, mentioned earlier. Other citizens – the ones who walked away from Omelas – rejected their belonging to the community any longer. These people would always abandon the city alone, on foot. Nobody was aware of where the final destination of their trip is. Possibly that they did not know their destinations themselves, however, they could no longer be a part of the city of Omelas once they had learned the true cause of their happiness (Cadden, 2004, 149-150). If the reader realizes the main ideas of the community in the short story, he faces the moral question. The question that describes the theme of the short story “Will I adopt the suffering of the miserable human child in the filthy room, or will I walk away from Omelas?”

The city of Omelas may appear imaginable to some point. The author even questions the reader, “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy?” The reality is that the modern community shares the weak point of Omelas, without sharing its strong point. The contraries offered by the author, the happiness of citizens of Omelas and the suffering of the miserable, unfortunate child in the ugly room, evoke the terrible fact: all the happiness and pleasure are not free and depend on other people’s torments. This horrible truth reflects the main idea of the community of Omelas as well as the main idea of the whole short story. As it was mentioned earlier it refers to the social norms and social justice always accompanied with the questions of morality.

Works Cited

Cadden, Mike. Ursula K. le Guin beyond Genre: Fiction for Children and Adults. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Collings, Michael R., ed. Reflections on the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fourth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Parrinder, Patrick, ed. Learning from Other Worlds: Estrangement, Cognition and the Politics of Science Fiction and Utopia /. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 2000.

Piazza, Antonella. “Heinz Tschachler. Ursula K. le Guin.” Utopian Studies 14.1 (2003): 272+.

Rochelle, Warren G. Communities of the Heart: The Rhetoric of Myth in the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 2001.

Wegner, Phillip E. Imaginary Communities: Utopia, the Nation, and the Spatial Histories of Modernity. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.

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