This essay was originally written for an English class and posted for your viewing pleasure.
In 1516, Thomas More wrote a novel entitled Utopia about a society that seemed perfect on the surface, but had deeply rooted problems within its society. More named Utopia after the Greek root words for “no place” and “good place” and allowed the reader to decide which definition of utopia applied to the island society (Utopia 1). Utopia forced its readers to doubt the civilized societies that they lived in by exposing the immoral choices made behind the public’s prosperity and freedom. Ursula Le Guin follows in the footsteps of Thomas More and presents a similar society in “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. In “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, Ursula Le Guin uses Imagery, Narration, and Metaphor to argue that a utopian society does not exist.
Throughout the story, Le Guin uses imagery to illustrate the splendor and darkness Omelas. The shining city of Omelas is introduced to us just in time for the Festival of Summer. The people of Omelas filled the streets, headed “towards the north side of the city, where on the great water-meadow called Green’ Fields boys and girls, naked in the bright air, with mud-stained feet and ankles and long, lithe arms exercised their restive horses before the race” (Le Guin 1). As they walked through the streets they were enchanted by the great beauty that surrounded the city, enraptured by the music that played in the streets, and enticed by each other’s company. Le Guin takes her time to describe in excruciating detail every aspect of Omelas from “the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks” (Le Guin 1) to the braids on the horses’ manes. She paints Omelas as humanity at the height of its potential before throwing the entire society from its high horse with the living conditions of one child. There is a child in Omelas that lives in a dirty broom closet, naked and afraid; “Perhaps it was born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect” (Le Guin 3). The child stays in the closet its entire life and never gets to enjoy the magnificence that lies beyond the door of that closet. The only attention the child receives is when one of the superior surface-dwellers comes to witness the one who involuntarily suffers so that they can enjoy prosperity and freedom. That is the way that it is in Omelas: “If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place…all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed” (Le Guin 4). The author uses detailed imagery to show that the opulence on the surface of Omelas hides the truth just below the surface. Omelas is a beautiful lie.
Le Guin’s use of a narrator in “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” discredits the existence of this utopian society. The narrator gives the audience a descriptive secondhand account of the Festival of Summer, but detours almost immediately to describe the culture of Omelas instead of the Festival. The narrator tells us that Omelas is well educated, self-governed, emotionally developed people before immediately causing us to the doubt the existence of this utopia by stating “I wish I could convince you. Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once up a time” (Le Guin 1-2). The narrator cuts down what he claims to be a non-fictional account by comparing Omelas to a fairy tale, and then begins to distort the facts so that his retelling of the Festival of Summer can fit our “own fancy bids” (Le Guin 2). By deviating from the Festival of Summer, the narrator has destroyed his own integrity as a storyteller and thus discredited the existence of Omelas itself. The narrator continues to give an account of the Festival, but once again detours to tailor his play-by-play so that it can fit the desired Omelas experience parameters of his audience. He goes so far as to speak in abstract about the cultural identity of Omelas’ patrons as well as their recreational activities (Le Guin 2). He spends so much time adjusting Omelas to fit his audience’s expectations that the only aspect left to change is the core of what the narrator says makes the city, the Festival, and the happiness of its people hard to believe: the lack of guilt or pain (Le Guin 3). The narrator immediately changes that parameter by showing us the child, the one who absorbs all of Omelas’ negative aspects, and turns Omelas into an idyllic utopia into a terrifying dystopia. Le Guin’s uses of the narrator allows the dark underbelly of Omelas to be not only exposed, but manufactured by the audience itself. Omelas has now become familiar.
Throughout “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, the author, Ursula Le Guin builds a metaphor to compare the city of Omelas to our modern civilizations. Le Guin begins to connect Omelas to modern day civilization by describing the governing structure. Despite the lovely, natural landscape surrounding Omelas, this is not an ancient city of savages or kings; “As they did without monarchy and slavery, so they also got on without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb” (Le Guin 1). Everything the citizens of Omelas had fell between “the unnecessary but undestructive, that of comfort, luxury, exuberance, etc.” (Le Guin 2.) Le Guin starts by displaying the difference between a country such as the United States and Omelas by clearing out the industry and leaving only the beauty that America once held before our belief in pain before happiness allowed us to use all the resources of the land instead of conserving some of them. Le Guin then goes on to face two more of our society’s biggest problems: religion and drug use. In Omelas, a belief system exists without any clergy to distort and corrupt said beliefs (Le Guin 2). In America, for example, there are multiple examples of priests and pastors distorting what they proclaim to be the word of God to fit their bigoted and pedophilic agendas, causing trauma and death even to those who are not directly involved with those corrupt sects. Drug use is not a big deal in Omelas like it is in today’s societies. Those who choose to partake in these nonaddictive substances occasionally do so to temporarily enhance their living experience (Le Guin 2). They do not become crippling habits used to escape the pains of daily life. This sharp dichotomy between Omelas and today’s governments allows for a strong statement to me made regarding the treatment of the child. The abuse of the child does not just destroy the utter perfection of Omelas, but shines a sharp light onto society. Our society has atrocities hidden just beneath the surface that we ignore so that we can be happy in our daily lives, just as some citizens blissfully ignore the hell that the child has been put through (Le Guin 3). We roll our eyes and insult those who have barely survived with their lives during a disaster just as some citizens of Omelas beat on the helpless child when they go to visit him (Le Guin 3). We are all aware of that there are those less fortunate than around the world and yet we waste vital resources so that we live well beyond what is necessary. We live in exorbitant comfort because if we help the less fortunate in our society, we fear that all that we have will wither and die. Omelas is not perfect and neither are we. Utopia cannot exist in a world of suffering.
Just as Thomas More exposed the problems of 16th century societies in Utopia, Ursula Le Guin placed a spotlight on the problems of modern day societies. The word utopia may have two interpretations, but Le Guin has made it abundantly clear to the reader through imagery, narration, and metaphor that there can be no good place, no perfect place, so long as we continue to compete against ourselves and ignore those in need of help. All of us as citizens of the world must strive for equality and freedom for all. We must reject the greed in our hearts and the corruption of our institutions if we want to form a perfect union. We must be unafraid to be “The One Who Walk Away From Omelas”.
Le Guin, Ursula. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” The Wind’s Twelve Quarters: Short Stories.
“Utopia.” Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11 Nov. 2008, http://www.shmoop.com/utopia-more/. Accessed 27 Sept. 2017.