illustration of a young boy in a cage in the center with lines connecting the boys cage to images of happy people and flowers

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Start Free Trial

Summary and Allegorical Significance in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Ursula Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" was first published in 1973 in New Dimensions 3 and has been published in many anthologies since. When it appeared for the second time in 1975 as part of her short story collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters, Le Guin added a two-page preface in which she addresses her subtitle, "Variations on a Theme by William James," and its connection to the story's theme. Le Guin writes in this preface: "The central idea of this psycho myth, the scapegoat, turns up in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamozov, and several people have asked me, rather suspiciously, why I gave the credit to William James." She goes on to say that not having re-read Dostoevsky since she was twenty-five, she had ''simply forgotten he used the idea. But when [she] met it in James's 'The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,' it was with a shock of recognition." Le Guin's preface is friendly and informative in nature: for example, she tells the reader that the name "Omelas" came from her reading the road sign for Salem, Oregon backwards, something she commonly did, reading the word "stop," for example, as ''pots.'' The reference to James and Dostoevsky seems, too, to be merely a helpful, explanatory note from the author, but here the nature of Le Guin's comments cannot to be taken for granted. Critic Shoshana Knapp reminds us of D.H. Lawrence's suggestion to "trust the tale instead of the teller": Simply because the author says something does not mean the reader needs to believe it, and perhaps the people who asked Le Guin about Dostoevsky ''suspiciously" were right to be suspicious, regardless of her casual dismissal. It matters whether or not one trusts Le Guin's comments about her inspiration for this story.

Since both Dostoevsky and James have written pieces which include some kind of scapegoat which could be a model for the locked-up child of Omelas, looking at these pieces in light of Le Guin's story can be instructive. The passage she cites from James says that if millions of people could be "kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment, ... how hideous a thing would be [the enjoyment of this happiness] when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain." James holds the optimistic position that people would not accept this bargain, that a "specifical and independent sort of emotion" would arise which would "immediately make us feel" its hideous nature, "even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered." In James's view, people would immediately spurn such happiness. The premise of "Omelas" is that the opposite would hold true: in Omelas, walking away is not the norm but happens rarely and is considered, as Knapp points out, "'incredible.' Le Guin's story, then, seems to refute the Jamesian assumption of an innate human decency; in Omelas, the mean and the vulgar are accepted as a necessary part of existence."

Certainly Le Guin's story is aiming for some kind of political interpretation, though exactly what that should be is less clear. Le Guin deals with similar themes in some of her other works, including The Dispossessed, The Tombs of Atuan, and Rocannon's World. Her story "The Day Before the Revolution," which immediately follows "Omelas" in The Wind's Twelve Quarters, is about one of those who walked away, Odo, the female founder of the planet in The Dispossessed . Regarding James's encapsulation of the scapegoat, Le...

(This entire section contains 1939 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Guin writes that "the dilemma of the American conscience can hardly be better stated." As critic Jerre Collins puts it, ''the dilemma of the American conscience seems to be twofold: we cannot renounce the exploitation of others that makes possible our high standard of living, nor can we renounce the scapegoat-motif that justifies our comfortable life, [but 'Omelas' challenges] us to renounce both."

For Knapp, there is more to the story than the particular political interpretation Le Guin urges the reader toward, a position which rests on emphasizing the influence of Dostoevsky in addition to James. Knapp sees "Omelas" as being closer to Dostoevsky than to James, because James, in the passage Le Guin cites, discusses an abstract "lost soul" of no particular age, while Dostoevsky gives the reader, in the portrayal of the child Ivan Karamozov, a "painfully concrete picture ... of isolation, malnutrition, mental torment, and filth," strikingly similar to the child we find in Omelas.

Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamozov walks away from his life condemning the creator (in this case, God); Omelas, writes Knapp, "itself can be seen as a Similar act of dissent, a refusal to write stories that are rotten at the core," to be as guilty as the God in question in The Brothers Karamozov. ''In the world of Le Guin's fiction, creation, like all acts of freedom and wizardry, entails moral responsibility." Knapp sees Le Guin's subject, then, as not only the moral accountability of a society for which the happiness of the majority rests on the abject misery of a powerless few, but that "her actual subject is the proper morality of art itself."

The Jamesian version of the scapegoat myth is an abstract political idea of oppression, while in Dostoevsky's version, the person who is the scapegoat rails against God, the creator of his situation. In ''Omelas," Le Guin sets up the narrator, the reader, and Le Guin herself as creators of the child's situation.

Here there is a further point to be made about trustworthiness. The fact that Le Guin says in her preface to trust her regarding Dostoevsky and James, when the reader may have reason not to, can be viewed as analagous to the narrator saying to trust him or her about the people of Omelas and the legitimacy of their response to their dilemma. According to the narrator, the people of Omelas ''would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do.... Even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom." Knapp and Collins, however, both criticize the reasons the narrator gives against freeing the child as faulty rationalizations. According to Knapp, the justification "offered by the narrator—that the child makes the inhabitants aware of the 'terrible justice of reality'—is a patent sophistry. To choose between torturing a child and destroying one's society (which includes other children) is a diabolical choice, not a human one." Collins agrees that ''the rationalization rings hollow because the narrator has told us earlier that the child had not always been imprisoned in the dark room and 'can remember sunlight and its mother's voice,' and also that it wants out, even pleads to be released. However imbecile it may be, it knows (remembers) an alternative to its present suffering and wants that alternative. The bad faith of the Omelasians' rationalization is implied."

Not only are the residents of Omelas, those who stay, complicit in the child's misery, but the narrator attempts to draw the reader in and make the reader complicit on some level as well. Although the story opens with a well-detailed description of Omelas and its summer festival by a narrator who relates this description with authority, by the third paragraph the narrator goes so far as to say ''Perhaps it would be best if you imagined [Omelas] as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all.... They could perfectly well have central heating... and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here.... Or they could have none of that: it doesn't matter. As you like it." If the reader accepts this premise, that the details of Omelas are at his or her discretion, then the reader is implicated in the creation of Omelas and thus implicated in the horrible situation on which the society rests.

According to Collins, such "negotiations entice the reader to commit himself or herself to the project of constructing a Utopia, a happy world that is intelligible." As the narrator points out, "we have a bad habit ... of considering happiness as something rather stupid''; it is not intelligible to us that a place could simply be happy, so we need a sense of something darker underneath. Because the narrator carries out the process of constructing Omelas with the reader for the good aspects of Omelas as well as for the bad, the reader is lulled into complacency and into accepting the reasonableness of such a world and his/her own role in creating it. As Knapp points out, "sometimes the narrator implies that this society has objective reality, that it is possible to have definite knowledge about it, even if this knowledge is not fully accessible to the narrator or to us," and sometimes not, through doling out to us pieces of information which are "factual" or "optional," a grammar which "traps us more subtly" in the creation of Omelas, as even the verbs change from past tense to present to conditional.

Collins classifies "Omelas" as an example of what she calls "narrative theodicy," a story which, like the necessities of painful labor and of dying in Genesis as "consequences of Adam and Eve's eating the forbidden fruit ... justifies or makes sense of a painful aspect of the status quo.'' Collins explains that theodicy originally was a way to explain evil and meaningless in the world as somehow being a justified part of God's plan. In "Omelas," the narrator explains that the child suffers so that the rest of the population can live happily, but no logical explanation is given as to why this should be so—and thus, Collins writes, Le Guin is able to make her reader question "a similar failure of Western capitalist theodicy": there is no good reason, despite the "historical, economic, political, racial-genetic-physical, geographical and religious elements" that Western readers may use to explain the "radical inequalities" of "'our' world," as to why certain groups must suffer so that others can have a high standard of living. No justification can be made for capitalism's "[exploitation of] the peoples of the third world, or one's indigenous unprivileged groups (blacks, women, the poor generally)."

Le Guin's ending, in which some individuals leave Omelas for a place "even less imaginable to most of us," points out finally that the dilemma of the scapegoat for the American people has in no way been resolved. The ones who walk away are not thanked for their decency or concern or commitment to social justice, nor does their absence even seem to be noticed. "Omelas" achieves its power through drawing in the reader and then implicating him or her in the highly questionable morality of the Utopia (s)he has participated in describing and thus in creating. Collins thinks that this story has never affected readers to the extent that they would change society because it is too threatening to their world view, that, ironically, the message is too powerful for people to hear.

What is this place, beyond the city of happiness that the narrator can hardly conceive of, much less describe? It would seem to be a place that values morality beyond happiness. We cynical modern Westerners can hardly conceive of a place unburdened by guilt, and it is still harder for us to conceive of a place where people freely renounce happiness which is based on a moral wrong.

Source: Judy Sobeloff, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Judy Sobeloff is a writer and educator who has won several awards for her fiction.

Parallels between Omelas and America

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In her introduction to "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" in The Wind's Twelve Quarters, Le Guin writes that her story was inspired by William James formulation of ideals as "the probable cause of experience." Le Guin states that her story was written as a fictive allegory of the scapegoat as the "dilemma of the American conscience." Yet, she never literally states this dilemma. As a fiction writer she illustrates, but never states, the problem. Were she an essayist, she might have written the story as a straightforward question and offered an argument like a newspaper editorialist or a philosophy teacher. She might have asked: If the land you lived in was in every way you could possibly imagine perfect, if it was your own unique, custom-made Utopia and everyone was ecstatically happy because one small child was horribly unhappy and mistreated child, would you give away all of this happiness and leave this land, because you objected? Would you walk away from Omelas?

After setting the question, Le Guin the editorial writer may have related this general question to the unique, particular predicament of American society. As a white woman writing in the contemporary United States, Le Guin may have been painfully aware of the racial discrimination surrounding her. She might have written that, while many white people were living extremely well, rates of African-American poverty, imprisonment and illiteracy were egregiously higher than that of white Americans. Because racist political, legal and educational systems have historically discriminated against African Americans throughout American history, Le Guin might have argued, African Americans have been hindered by more than metal shackles. While America has been a Utopian land of plenty for many rich whites, it has been a world of pain for many African Americans who have been murdered, lynched and discriminated against or excluded from middle-class America.

Or, when Le Guin wrote that her story evoked "the dilemma of the American conscience," she might have been thinking particularly of the corporate capitalist class discrimination that allows rich corporate executives to earn hundreds of times more money than most of their employees, an American economic system in which the wealthiest one percent of the population own an extremely disproportionate share of the total wealth of the country, which has often approximated over thirty percent. She might have compared this class to the least wealthy half of the population, which typically shares less than a quarter of the Americans' total wealth, attends poorer schools, dies years earlier than the average upper-class American, has higher rates of infant mortality and imprisonment and is more likely to die as a result of serious illness because of inferior health care.

In spite of Le Guin's admittedly instructive and unabashedly moralistic intentions, she could not simply type such a direct question and such blatant connections as I have sketched out, nor would she desire to do so. Since most readers of fiction resent being force-fed morality or didactically educated in the manner Le Guin proposes, such a didactic argument would not be effective, nor would it carry the emotional or affective force that her fictionalized argument contains. After all, Le Guin is not a teacher or philosopher like William James, whose writing inspired the story. She is a science fiction writer. Because Le Guin incurs an obligation to tell a fantastic, enjoyable story, she cannot allow her instructional intentions to overwhelm this primary responsibility. Her story must educate through this form. She must create a compelling story that will grip her audience, not a didactic treatise that would put many to sleep.

The dilemma that she works through in her story becomes: how to tell a moralistic story to a contemporary fiction audience? Thus, when Le Guin first asks, "How is one to tell about joy?" she is asking, how is one to tell about an ideal? How can one fictionalize an ideal without it sounding false? How can one entertain and educate at the same time?

Le Guin's question, "How is one to tell?" is itself part of her larger answer. By asking the reader such a direct question, she immediately destabilizes the traditional relationship between narrator and reader. Of course, Le Guin's narrative is actually no less structured or solid than a typical short story. Every author neglects some details, but unlike the typical short story narrator, Le Guin's narrator admits the incompletion of the picture, she confesses that she is not sure about the specifics of the religion of this land, the exact effects of ''drooze,'' and so on. Admiring the difficulty and contrived nature of storytelling, the narrator reveals the wizard behind the curtain. Asked, "How is one to tell?" the reader must immediately consider Le Guin's act of writing: the artifice of the fiction. The story presents, not a fully developed fantastic world, but a work-in-progress. From here, the reader's experience becomes a dual experience, following both the plot progression and the story construction. In fact, the plot in this primarily descriptive story becomes the development of whether or not Le Guin's fiction is believable. The conspicuous narrator becomes the main character.

The reader does not follow anyone's specific experience in Omelas, unlike most stories. Instead, in this story the reader consciously follows the narrator's attempt to create a believable world with Utopian characteristics. The story can be read as a story about storytelling, a story about the act of Creating an alternate, plausible reality. The task and difficulty of writing "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" becomes central to "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas'' itself, and in the context of Le Guin's attempt to translate William James theoretical formulation of the scapegoat into fiction, her approach has several definite advantages that are particularly effective here.

The question, "How does one tell?" acts first as a disclaimer. It admits that the story sounds unbelievable. Such a humble statement ingratiates the narrator to the reader by asking the reader for help. In opposition to the imperious manner of the typical moralist, Le Guin appears genuine and sympathetic.

Second, the question "How does one tell?" or ''How is one to tell?'' expands the reader's sense of possibility. Contrary to the typical assumption that a story must proceed according to a single narrative, Le Guin allows and actually requires each reader to envision his or her own narrative, and his or her own personal Utopia.

This is the final and most important advantage to her technique: her questions are not purely rhetorical. When the narrator asks the reader to envision the world as he or she wishes to, it forces the reader to consciously create the story with the narrator. Since the idea of such awesome responsibility is rarely admitted (though it is always the way stories are created), Le Guin softens her request by writing, in relation to technology, "Or they could have none of that: it doesn't matter. As you like it." She eases the readers sense of responsibility while exploiting it and implicating the reader more thoroughly into the act of writing. She proceeds to add her own suggestions, but claims that they are by no means definitive; they are not the only options. She scatters the story with "ifs": "If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don't hesitate." Her humorous suggestions continue, from a super-drug with the silly name ''drooze'' to the wild parade and "Festival of Summer." The cumulative effect is that the reader becomes playfully involved in creating this alternate reality thinking that "it doesn't really matter," when it does in a very particular manner.

That the reader consciously collaborates with Le Guin to create this story becomes crucially important. In the context of Le Guin's explicitly instructive intention, the shift in narration actually enhances the sense of urgency and moral responsibility she seeks to stress. Omelas develops as a word created not just by Le Guin, but by Le Guin and the reader. The story offers a space within which each reader may create his or her own Omelas, his or her own Utopia. The reader knowingly becomes an accomplice in the writing of this story and as a responsible creator, must accept the results: The reader has made her bed, now she must decide whether she will sleep in it or not.

Once the reader has imagined her Utopian Omelas, Le Guin begins to tighten her narrative. The narrator describes the parade and "The Festival of Summer" and then asks, "Do you believe me? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing." With this ''let me," the narrator slowly begins to take control of the story. At first, the narrative remains flexible. The child may live ''In the basement... or perhaps in the cellar." Here, the choice is much more limited than the fanciful daydreaming of the preceding chapters. She continues to describe the child,' 'It could be a boy or a girl ... Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear. "Once again, the choice offered to the reader is strictly limited, and with this final "perhaps," Le Guin ceases to offer options. The story proceeds according to her exact descriptions, from the precise sound of the child's whining to the feelings and thoughts of the child's visitors.

Only in the final paragraph does Le Guin's narrator release the story once again. She writes that some people "leave Omelas" and that "The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all." Crucially, she places the onus of final responsibility back on the reader. Having seen the repulsive underbelly of Omelas, the reader must imagine what this other place must look like. The reader must create her own image for the story's conclusion, another place that does not exploit or oppress anyone. Moreover, the reader's choice becomes imminently important. It is no longer a choice between fantastical worlds, as indicated by the narrator's enigmatic comment, "It is possible that it does not exist." If it were merely a choice between fairy tale lands, this comment would not make sense. Of course, Omelas does not exist, one might argue. There are wild parades, the odd ''Festival of Summer" and "drooze!" Why should it matter that an alternate world might not exist?

It matters because Le Guin, by forcing readers to conjure their own Omelas, has forced them to consciously relate the story to their own personal experience. By forcing the reader to create Omelas with her, to co-author our story, she forces us to understand that, while we do not live in ideal worlds, we live with ideals every day of our lives, and that even by not walking away, we support the ideals and the society we live in. That Le Guin cannot imagine a world not based on oppression forces one to face the the oppression of one's own society. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is ultimately inspiring because it forces us to examine our own ideals, and to consider both the consequences of those ideals and the means by which we might need to realize them.

Source: Logan Hill, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Logan Hill is a scholar specializing in American literature.

Leaving Omelas: Questions of Faith and Understanding

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Ursula Le Guin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," subtitled "Variations on a Theme by William James," is a critique of American moral life. At least that is what Ms. Le Guin tells us in the introduction she added when the story was collected in The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1975). First she quotes the passage from James's "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life" to which the subtitle refers:

[I]f the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's Utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain.

Le Guin then indicates that her story is to be read politically by adding, "The dilemma of the American conscience can hardly be better stated."

Her story is about a society's use of a scapegoat, a pharmakos, to keep the rest of the society happy; and the dilemma of the American conscience seems to be twofold: we cannot renounce the exploitation of others that makes possible our high standard of living, nor can we renounce the scapegoat-motif that justifies our comfortable life. By challenging us to renounce both, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" takes up what Hans Robert Jauss calls the "socially formative." But this story and other stories like it have not so far achieved any notable emancipation; they have not transformed the American conscience. Why not? I propose to take this story as seriously as we are meant to take it, examine how it works as a challenge to our conscience, and then suggest two factors that limit the radicality of that challenge.

As the text begins, the narrator is describing the bustle of preparations for the Festival of Summer in the city of Omelas, whose people are perfectly happy. She makes explicit the reader's complicity in the world-building activity of the story: "Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, ... for I certainly cannot suit you all." She proceeds to supply examples, and repeatedly asks the reader to change the examples or supply others, as indices of Utopian technology, Utopian sex, and Utopian drugs (among which the narrator playfully includes beer). Her negotiations entice the reader to commit himself or herself to the project of constructing a Utopia, a happy world that is intelligible, that forms an intelligible whole.

After more description of the beginning of the Festival of Summer, the narrator pauses to ask, "Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing," and we know that we are now approaching the key that should make the whole intelligible.

Again the narrator insists both on giving particular details and on signaling that the details are mere indices and may be varied, so long as the alternate index has the same signification, carries the same meaning:

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.

The child's situation and its misery are described at some length. The passage closes with a physical description of the child, a description familiar to us from the photo-journalism of war, displacement, and famine:

It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of cornmeal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.

The narrator stresses that all the people of Omelas know about the child, and they all know that there is a connection between the child's unhappiness and their prosperity:

Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery.

At first the latter items on this list may seem to be excessive and facetious. However, extravagant causality is frequently found in a particular kind of narrative meant to explain or justify the current state of things. For example, the third chapter of Genesis presents the necessity of painful labor (in both senses) and the necessity of dying as consequences of Adam and Eve's eating the forbidden fruit. Let us call this kind of narrative, which justifies or makes sense of a painful aspect of the status quo, a narrative theodicy.

''Theodicy'' originally designated a theoretical attempt to explain the problem of evil, to "justify the ways of God to man." It takes its place within the larger human project of the creation of an ordered world of experience, a world in which everything "fits" or has its place—what Benjy bellowed for at the end of The Sound and the Fury. Peter Berger calls such an ordered world of experience a "nomos," a rule-governed universe. Anything that disorders our world—such as death, sickness, and evil, but also economic and social privations that lead to sickness, suffering, and early death—can cause anomie, a loss of nomos. Anomie is the chaos into which we fall when our world falls apart. It is a threatening sense of meaninglessness and disorder. We can escape anomie only by placing the disorder within a larger pattern of order. This is precisely what theodicies do.

A theodicy need not be religious. Berger notes that ''A theodicy may ... be established by projecting compensation for the anomie phenomena into a future understood in this-worldly terms," and he gives as an example the recurrent millenarianism of the Biblical or Jewish-Christian-Muslim tradition. But the same kind of projection can be seen in secular form. For example, several of Chekhov's plays include a character who speaks, like Vershinin in Three Sisters, in secular millenarian terms:

In two or three hundred years, or maybe in a thousand years—it doesn't matter how long exactly—life will be different. It will be happy. Of course, we shan't be able to enjoy that future life, but all the same, what we're living for now is to create it, we work and ... yes, we suffer in order to create it. That's the goal of our life, and you might say that's the only happiness we shall ever achieve.

Here we see that the suffering of the present, even the perceived lack of meaningfulness of the present, is justified, made meaningful, understood in terms of a humanly satisfying future.

A theodicy can be theoretically articulated (in the type of discourse Barthes calls intellectual), but it can also find expression or be created in the other forms of discourse, including narrative. Perhaps the most powerful, most effective form of theodicy is a narrative: the life of Christ, for instance, or of Socrates, or Marxist apocalyptic history. A good narrative can "make sense" quite compellingly, in a way hard for other forms of discourse to match. And when a culture's narrative theodicy begins to lose its explanatory power, the result can be great anomie. It is not surprising, then, that a culture will resist a story that challenges its theodicy.

Let us return to "Omelas." Immediately after describing the suffering child, the narrator adds:

If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms ... The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.

The connection between the child's suffering and the people's happiness is stressed, yet while the narrator says that the connection can be understood, she advances no details, however hypothetically, as indices of the rationality or intelligibility of the connection. If the child's suffering makes sense, that sense is not demonstrated. But if a theodicy fails to make sense of such a radical inequality of power and privilege, it is a "bad" theodicy; and accepting it implies either stupidity or bad faith. Of course, not accepting it leaves one open to anomie.

If the child's suffering is not made rational, the Omelasians' acquiescence is rationalized. After describing the child, the narrator explains how those who come to visit the child, mostly young people, come to terms with what they see:

They may brood over it for weeks or years. But as time goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom, a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in. Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it.

This rationalization has a familiar ring to it. Similar justifications of the status quo sometimes appear in discussions of "first world" relations with the third world or discussions of relations between the prosperous classes and the unprivileged groups of, say, America. In the story, the rationalization rings hollow because the narrator has told us earlier that the child had not always been imprisoned in the dark room and ''can remember sunlight and its mother's voice,'' and also that it wants out, even pleads to be released. However imbecile it may be, it knows (remembers) an alternative to its present suffering and wants that alternative. The bad faith of the Omelasians' rationalization is implied.

The next step in our analysis of how Le Guin's story challenges the American conscience depends on the distinction between story and text. It is often noted that one of the peculiarities of narrative is that different texts can ''tell the same story." For example, many see the three synoptic gospels telling the same Christ-story (when compared to the Gospel of John). Moreover, the Christ-story itself can be read as a sequence of functions so that other texts with different events and characters can be said to be telling the Christ-story too (or part of it). We may call this the level of the ur-story. On a higher level of abstraction, the Christ-story and, say, the Oedipus story can be said to be alternate embodiments of the hero-story (see Lord Raglan, The Hero). We may call this the level of the ur-ur-story.... And so on, as we stutter into infinite regress, onto ever higher levels of abstraction. Note that on each level we may speak meaningfully of variations: variant texts of the same story, variant stories of the same ur-story, and so on.

One way of specifying the relationship among levels is to see the ur-story not as an abstraction from similar stories but as a code or ''master plot" by means of which the reader can construct, as he or she reads, innumerable stories in the image of their master. For example, Frederick Jameson, who calls the ur-story the "master code or Ur-narrative," aspires in The Political Unconscious to show how all narratives can be seen to be telling (at least a part of) the Marxist Ur-narrative. "Interpretation," he tells us, "is here construed as an essentially allegorical act, which consists in rewriting a given text in terms of a particular interpretive master code."

But rewriting may be reversible; a flaw in the story may reveal or unveil a flaw in the ur-story. Le Guin's story, by conspicuously failing to enable the reader "to perceive the terrible justice of reality," suggests a similar failure of Western capitalist theodicy. The people of Omelas are able to rationalize to their satisfaction a situation that enables them to continue to enjoy happiness and prosperity. But we are told only one segment of the rationalization, and the weakest segment at that (namely, that the child would be more wretched out of the closet of suffering than in it), the one most strongly suggesting the Omelasians' bad faith. A full rationalization, as we know from "our" world, would include historical, economic, political, racial-genetic-physical, geographical, and religious elements so that such radical inequalities would indeed ''make sense.'' It is because Le Guin's story has by this point become rather obviously an allegory of Western hegemony that the narrator can proceed to say, with a little more bite to her words, ''Now do you believe in them [the people of Omelas]? Are they not more credible?" Indeed they are; they look a lot like us.

The story's more radical calling of the reader into question is yet to come, however, in the text's long last paragraph, which the narrator introduces with a monitory ''But there is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible." Sometimes a boy or girl, man or woman is not persuaded by the Omelasian theodicy nor by the prospect of the good life. For them, neither good faith nor bad faith suffices. Sooner or later, they walk out of the city. And when evening comes, instead of returning they walk on. In a final challenge to our moral imagination, Le Guin has her narrator say:

They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

At the very end, then, the story points toward the real Utopia, a negative space defined by its difference from Omelas.

Le Guin's authorial comment about "the dilemma of the American conscience," with which we began, ratifies, as it were, the political-economic reading I have outlined here.

The curious fact is that the dilemma, both for the American conscience and for the West's in general, has for a long time remained, and continues to remain, a dilemma. The theodicy of Western capitalism is not working well, but neither has it failed altogether. Its continued imperfect success may be attributed partly to bad faith, partly to the extreme difficulty of imagining a genuine alternative and how to get there, but also partly, I suggest, to a third reason.

Le Guin's text can be read in terms of another ur-story besides that of Western capitalism: the religious story of the "suffering servant," the one who suffers to ensure the happiness of the many. A version of this story has been canonized in Christian redemption theology. In this reading, when Le Guin's text fails to explain, to make sense of the child's suffering, that failure suggests that the various reasons advanced in the religious stow also fail finally to make sense.

My point is that the possibility of reading Le Guin's story alternately as a religious allegory and as a politico-economic allegory reveals a narrative-structural similarity in the two ur-stories, and furthermore suggests that some of the difficulty in throwing off Western rationalizations of exploitation is accounted for by a hidden link between redemption-theology and complacency about exploitation. The same ur-story (or ur-ur-story) is involved: exploiting the peoples of the third world, or one's indigenous unprivileged groups (blacks, women, the poor generally) is homologous to being redeemed by the "suffering servant." Rejection of capitalist exploitation-theodicy undermines the redemption-theodicy since they are structurally so similar, and threatens great anomie. To walk into the darkness, unable to imagine where one might be going, is very much like walking off the edge of the world. Or rather, in the archetypal imagery of our culture, leaving bright Omelas and walking into the darkness is like going from life into death.

This brings us to one last complication. The Bible, our culture's source of the suffering-servant theodicy, entwines this theodicy with another one, which we may call a "resurrection" theodicy. This theodicy appears already in the Old Testament and is foregrounded in the New. For example, Jesus suffers and dies, only to rise again to a transformed, glorious life in the presence of the Father. A frequently cited ''natural'' exemplar of this theodicy is the caterpillar that seems to die but instead is transformed into a butterfly.

It is this second theodicy to which Le Guin's story appeals and from which it derives much of its power. If leaving Omelas is like going from life into death, that death (according to the faith of those who leave) leads to a new, transformed life in a place beyond the mountains, a life so different from the present life that it is unimaginable.

But Le Guin's appeal to the resurrection theodicy weakens her attack on the suffering-servant theodicy, since in the Judeo-Chnstian tradition it is the resurrection theodicy that justifies recourse to the pharmakos: it is all right for one person to suffer for the benefit of another, because even the sufferer will end up benefiting—his or her final, transformed state will be vastly better than his or her first state.

Our original question was: Why hasn't Le Guin's story (and others like it) transformed the American conscience? Now we have an answer. On the one hand, the secular, economic version of the suffering-servant theodicy gains power from the religious version, still strong in our culture. Because the economic and religious theodicies are quite similar, a threat to one can easily be seen as a threat to the other. Readers may resist Le Guin's story in order to protect themselves from an increase in anomie. On the other hand, the theodicy of resurrection or of renewed, transformed life, cannot function for us as the alternative it might otherwise be, because in our religious culture it is precisely resurrection that gives the suffering-servant theodicy its final justification. So when Le Guin makes sense of a Utopian gesture (leaving Omelas) in the imagery of renewed life beyond death, she indirectly buttresses the very scapegoat theodicy she hopes to undermine.

Source: Jerre Collins, "Leaving Omelas: Questions of Faith and Understanding," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, no 4, Fall, 1990, pp. 525-35.


Critical Overview