Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” Essay
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Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a deeply disturbing story about having all the joys of Utopia at the expense of one child. Le Guin uses heavy irony and sarcasm to express the narrator’s distaste at the use of this child for the greater gains of the rest of the society, and does so by at first exalting the city and then revealing the terrible dark secret that lies underneath.
Irony is defined as “The reader’s or audience’s awareness of a reality that differs from the reality the characters perceive…or the literal meaning of the author’s words” (Charters, 1727).
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is rich with irony from the outset. The narrator is describing a town she herself does not live in and admits as much, even going so far as to admit that she really isn’t sure of all the details, yet she is sure that it is all just absolutely wonderful and we the readers just need to believe her.
She offers a number of different possibilities for what splendorous things may exist in Omelas, without ever admitting whether or not they actually do. She is an unreliable narrator, because she clearly tries so very hard to be convincing: “O miracle! but I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you. Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time” (890).
But this is where the narrator is planting her first seeds of irony: by focusing continuously on the wondrous qualities of the city of Omelas and the people in it without having any concrete details to offer aside from telling the reader to imagine for himself what to believe, the narrator is already here undermining the credibility of this Utopia city. By saying “It’s so great, it’s so great, it’s so great,” but not having any real answer for why, the narrator is already implicitly telling her readers that even she doesn’t believe it. From this the readers are able to gather that the narrator’s praise is in utter sarcasm, and her intention has nothing to do with exalting this community and everything to do with mocking it.
When describing Omelas in the beginning, the narrator does so with a sense of mockery, taking little stabs at this seeming nirvana in the midst of her increasingly praising description of its perfection. At one point in her description she says, “One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt” (890). This statement seems to roll right along with the rest of the description of how everyone in Omelas is full of joy and know only bliss, but in light of the story as a whole this harmless little line takes on a whole new meaning. She continues on with her exalting description, then pauses to ask, “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing” (891).
This “one more thing” she had to describe is the child locked away alone in a room underneath the beautiful city. The way she asks in such an accusatory tone whether the readers believe her yet implies that she knows full well we do not, and she also knows that by revealing this last tidbit of information, the dark truth beneath the shiny surface, we may more willingly accept the Paradise with the morbid secret keeping it afloat. To further her point, she later asks “Now do you believe in them? Are they not more credible?” (893). Her tone drips with irony, sarcasm, and accusation—her words say that Omelas is Paradise, but her tone tells us that this Paradise has a steep price, and everyone is guilty.
When the narrator goes on the describe the wretched child and its visitors, she takes a cold, removed approach, describing the scene in an entirely clinical way, but at the same time effectively (and chillingly) communicates the horrors of the situation: “One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear” (891-2).
Though her words in themselves do not directly pass judgment on these happy people of Omelas, the portrait she paints of the initial shock and disgust experienced by the people of Omelas who come to visit the sacrificial child, which then gives way eventually to rationalized acceptance, is a portrait of the narrator’s disgust at the situation. She does acknowledge the difficulty of such a situation—“Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free” (892-3)—but in doing so implies that their happiness, too, isn’t all that it seems or what they believe it to be.
What Le Guin really seems to be tackling in this story is the concept of utilitarianism; i.e., the greater good for the greater number is of more inherent value than the needs of the individual. Soccio offers an introduction to this concept that is painfully applicable to this story:
Life requires choices. The more complex a society, the larger and more diverse its population, the more difficult those choices become. Two competing tendencies struggle to control the general direction of any society: a desire for change and progress, and a desire for security and order. To do justice to both tendencies, a free society must try to balance individual rights and freedoms with the general social welfare. (450)
What Le Guin is challenging here is the idea that a single solitary human life is expendable for the unadulterated happiness of the many—and she additionally argues that there can be no pure, unadulterated happiness so long as there is one soul suffering, that even the shared perception of bliss in the city of Omelas is tainted and false.
In “The Scapegoat in Omelas,” Le Guin cites a quotation by William James as her inspiration for the idea: “ ‘…even though the impulse 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?’”, to which Le Guin then states, “The dilemma of the American conscience can hardly be stated better” (1495). “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is Le Guin’s horrified exploration of these ethically challenging ideas, and she uses her quiet sarcasm to hammer home the horror.
Le Guin’s strongest sense of irony is present in the way the narrator gently mocks the general decision to allow the one child’s suffering in order for the majority to be happy. Again, the words in themselves are not mocking, but the tone used and the implications intended are as sarcastic and satirical as Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (in which he suggests eating babies as a means to address the poverty issue in Ireland).
It is clear that the narrator does not agree with this choice made by the majority of the people of Omelas (with the exception of those who walk away, for whom the narrator has a tender sympathy), nor does she even fully believe their happiness to be genuine. This is why she describes everything in such a removed, casual, sarcastic tone. It is her tone that tells all, and it is by her tone that the readers are made to understand that this is something we should be horrified by, not something we should find appealing. We as the readers are encouraged to be among the ones who walk away.
Charters, Ann, ed. The Story and Its Writer. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.
Le Guin, Ursula. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omleas.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.
Le Guin, Ursula. “The Scapegoat in Omelas.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.
Soccio, Douglas J., ed. Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy. 3rd ed. Belmont: ITP Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998.