What is the identity issue of the characters in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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LeGuin's story is morally ambiguous at best.  Perhaps this is intentional since LeGuin's allegory takes William James's theory of pragmatism to lengths that put it in question.   For "the greater good" of pragmatism, the miserable child must exist.  Those who walk away do not agree with this theory; however, they do nothing to allieviate the suffering of the child.

 

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Whilst I can see the point of the editors above, especially of #2, I would disagree. Perhaps we are risking stretching the allegorical nature of this excellent story too far. I think it is those who walk away who show tremendous courage and bravery. There is no sense in which we are shown that the citizens are able to challenge the system that gives them perfect happiness at such a great price for the pitiful child. There is no way in which they can choose to help release that child. The only way they can rebel is to sacrifice their own perfect happiness by walking away to an uncertain future. This is the only way in which they can rebel, and they are to be admired and respected for it.

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Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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I read the story as a metaphor for evil, one that explores the evils of society but transcends the social elements to address the underlying evil present in humanity itself. The society in the story has been maintained through traditional acts of evil over a period of time. These are both overt and covert acts; some actively participate in the imprisonment of a child, while others encourage it or merely allow it to happen. Regardless of the degree of personal involvement, everyone in society benefits from the subjugation and suffering of the defenseless.

Once social evil is identified, the question becomes how to respond to it--to embrace it, to ignore it, to walk away from it, or to confront and challenge it. In the story, those who walk away do so at personal sacrifice, but they also benefit; leaving evil behind makes it easier to forget what what they have seen and what continues to happen in their absence.

History does not honor those who walk away when confronted with evil, and literature does not celebrate them. It is those who choose to stay and fight for goodness and justice, often at the sacrifice of their own lives, who earn our respect for their courage. They are the ones who bring about change and advance human progress and decency. Walking away is not enough.

 

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that you are right on a couple of points.  Indeed, the story does bring to light that there is a pattern of victimization present in modern society.  Individuals who are "happy" or ones who enjoy a certain degree of political or social power do so at the cost of another individual or group.  Those who stay in Omelas are happy because of the struggles of the child.  This construction is deliberate on LeGuin's part.  It can be seen as the relationship between owner and worker, or groups in society that represent cultural norms over groups that are marginalized.  The Special Education analogy brought out is an interesting one.  I think that it might have been true some time back, but there is a much greater advocacy for special needs children now than ever before.  The presence of high stakes standardized assessment that measures progress of special education children might be a reason why these groups and subgroups can no longer be seen as the child in the story.  The idea of guilt and happiness is another significant element in the thematic development of the story.  LeGuin establishes that the people who stay understand how things are and must accept responsibility for it.  The people who leave are an interesting bunch.  On one hand, they can be praised for their unwillingness to live in a configuration where their happiness comes at another's cost and would be much willing to live with their own guilt and personal pain than falsely live a happy state of being.  On the other hand, I think that another reading could be what you suggest in that those who leave or stay are on the same moral level because they permit the suffering of another to take place.  The ones that leave are more self centered in that they are more concerned with their own guilt than the pain and suffering of the child.  However, given what LeGuin says about how there can be no helping of the child, as they have been in this condition for so long that little, if anything, would help is an important element here that needs to be assessed.

mjbrockwell's profile pic

mjbrockwell | College Teacher | eNotes Newbie

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LeGuin's story is morally ambiguous at best.  Perhaps this is intentional since LeGuin's allegory takes William James's theory of pragmatism to lengths that put it in question.   For "the greater good" of pragmatism, the miserable child must exist.  Those who walk away do not agree with this theory; however, they do nothing to allieviate the suffering of the child.

 

(continued)

Indeed, the various real-world struggles that you hint at (the modern civil rights movement, for example) all could be seen as vigourous discussions around changing the terms. All achieved a transcendent power because they weren't focused on SPECIFIC injustices like Rosa Parks having to go to the back of the bus, but because they were focused on changing the terms - for everybody, oppressor as much as oppressed, a process that freed people from both specific and general injustice.

The implication is that nobody in Omelas knows who set the terms, because the statement is set forth with that same false sense of completeness that any child, who has ever been told "because that's the way it is", must fully understand.

Maybe the ones who walk away from Omelas do so not because they are giving up on the moral quandary, but because they recognize that Omelas is a city of children.

Maybe they are in search of the other side of the dialogue, the dialogue that truly WILL set the child free. Maybe they are trying to find out where the adults live.

mjbrockwell's profile pic

mjbrockwell | College Teacher | eNotes Newbie

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LeGuin's story is morally ambiguous at best.  Perhaps this is intentional since LeGuin's allegory takes William James's theory of pragmatism to lengths that put it in question.   For "the greater good" of pragmatism, the miserable child must exist.  Those who walk away do not agree with this theory; however, they do nothing to allieviate the suffering of the child.

 

I find this a fascinating question, so I read the story again as closely as I could to find out why they do nothing.

I think it is part of the logic of the story that Le Guin refuses to fully explain - instead she resorts to an imaginary "contract" that begins "If it [the child] were brought into the light ... in that moment all prosperity beauty and delight would be destroyed. Those are the terms."

Those are the terms? The question that a morally engaged individual might THEN ask could be, "Well, who set the terms? Because the terms need to change."

 

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