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The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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What is an analysis of "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" that connects to the theme of the American identity?

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Americans like to see themselves as part of an exceptionally prosperous and generous country. However, a minority of people are excluded from this good life of material prosperity. This is often dismissed by using a utilitarian argument. Utilitarianism is a practical, not idealist, philosophy developed by men like Jeremy Bentham that calls for the "greatest good for the greatest number."

In Omelas, people know and accept that their good life is based on the suffering of another. They simply dismiss the suffering child as the way life is and an unfortunate but decent trade off for everyone else's happiness. We in the United States could be said to do the same. We know that our good life is based, at least in part, on the sufferings of people in other parts of the world, such as children in Africa who essentially perform slave labor in mines so that we can have our consumer goods for low prices. If one is white, they know (even if they try to deny it) that the system is weighted against people of color, which helps ensure that whites have better lives. We know there are many people in prison, perhaps for the slimmest of crimes, who do work for extremely low pay so that we can buy lower cost goods and are often subjected to abuse. We can dismiss this or we can decide to do something about it—or we can leave the country, as do some of the Omelas people.

Le Guin argues that is wrong to base the happiness of the many on the suffering of the few, even if it is only one innocent who suffers. She argues too that nobody can really be happy under this circumstance, because the "happy" are always trying to rationalize or deny the unhappiness of the suffering one or few. American identity as a culture of prosperity and equality and as a society that aids the spread of global "freedom," Le Guin is saying, is stained by this contradiction in tolerating the suffering of a few.

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Le Guin offers a nice metaphor for the emerging social realities that exist as a part of American identity.  Essentially, Le Guin makes the case for if a society can exist effectively and morally if the happiness of many is dependent on the suffering of a few.  This connects to American identity in a couple of ways.  The first is that Le Guin is demanding a reexamination of the American Dream.  The notion of individual happiness begs the question as to how much one must keep in mind the maintenance of the social order.  The American Dream, by its own admission, is subjective and highly individual.  It does not necessarily embrace a wider perspective and Le Guin offers her own take on American identity by asking whether or not one should pursue a dream that fails to account for the maintenance of the social order.  

Another aspect of American identity that is present in the story would revolve around those who suffer.  The child endures pain and untold humiliation so that others can be content.  In American society, Le Guin is suggesting that can a nation predicated on fairness and equality within the law progress if there are a targeted few who suffer for others' happiness.  The time of the story's writing features American involvement in the Vietnam War, questions about President Johnson's "Great Society," and the future of the Civil Rights Movement.  All of these realities have to do with the happiness of some at the cost of others.  American identity is fundamentally challenged with the paradigm that Le Guin offers through "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas."  The story is one in which there is significant questioning as to how happiness for some can be morally, politically, and socially sustainable if it comes at the cost of another.  Through doing so, she offers a paradigm or way to evaluate American identity. 

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