Selfish Happiness of Many People in Exchange for the Extreme Suffering
In this universe, there is a Utopia called Omelas, where everyone is happy and smiling. There is a summer festival that everyone is having a joyous time participating in. Omelas has no police, no terrorists, no slaves and while religion is allowed, there are no clergymen or women. However, there is a dark part of Omelas, which resides in a dark room underground. The kids discover this area, and what lies within as a type of coming of age ritual. As to what lies inside the dark room, there is a child who gets no human interaction except for the occasional kick or hit. Initially, the kids react in disgust and want to help the child out, however, nobody ever does because the suffering of the child helps the prosperity of Omelas. Even so, there are a few people who decide to leave Omelas, the injustice of the child’s treatment too much for them. When a group treats a person inhumanely just for the sake of their own happiness, some might justify their actions while others open their eyes to the injustice and refuse to participate.
The narrator, a nameless character, is a static character. The only purpose the narrator serves is to tell the story. They do not ever come to the realization that the treatment of the child is so horrible, and they don’t take any action. This narrator is very passive and lacks emotion or sympathy for the child. “But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place…that would be a good thing, indeed… but all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed” (3). In a way, the use of the word vile tells us that the narrator understands that the darkroom is not a good place, still, they are complacent for the sake of Omelas citizens. There is little to be known about the narrator except that they have a vast knowledge of Omelas, and that it is likely they are not a citizen themselves. The narrator says that “[t]hey were not less complex than us” which implies that the narrator is not a member of the society because of the usage of “us” and “them”. Still, they are unjudgemental of the citizens of Omelas for torturing the child because they explain that “the trouble is that we have a bad habit… of considering happiness as something rather stupid” (3). This goes to show just how passive the narrator is, simply speaking the facts of the situation without taking sides.
A conflict that resides in Omelas is an internal battle with each citizen. The flames of the conflict burn brighter when the citizens first discover the truth about the child, when “these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight” (3). For the most part, however, the selfish need to be happy wins the internal fight of whether the treatment of the child is justified or not. There are the select few who “keep walking and walk straight out of the city of Omelas” because the internal conflict is something that they can no longer bear (3).
Another conflict is the poor child versus society. The child is abused and “perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect,” which truly shows the extent of the damage that society caused the child (2). The citizens of Omelas decide over and over again that their happiness is more important than the well-being of a single child and so the child has no way to fight back.
Omelas is a beautiful place where “the rigging of the boats in harbor sparkled with flags” and the citizens “were not simple folk, you see, though they were happy” (2-3). A summer festival is currently happening throughout Omelas where they take drugs and dance naked throughout the city. Everyone is happy. Psychologically, the setting resides in the psyche of the citizens of Omelas. The story takes place inside the mind of the narrator, who simply tells us the reasons that Omelas as a whole allows the abuse of one child. The question remains whether Omelas is a real place or not. “Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time,” where the use of fairy tale gives the effect of being outside of reality (1).
The point of view is so far removed from any emotion that it almost seems like an omniscient point of view. However, the narrator uses “I” statements, so it is a first-person, naive narrator. Le Guin seems to write in the first-person of this particular narrator so that the reader can understand, in some way, the justifications behind mistreating the child. The narrator seems almost omniscient themselves, describing Omelas as if they were looking over the city. A good example of this is “[m]ost of the processions have reached the Green Fields by now,” which is like the narrator as a birds-eye view (2). This gives the feeling of detachment from the atrocities in the city.
The word choice in this story is extremely important and well-chosen. The narrator describes the child as either a boy or a girl and uses the pronoun “it”, which effectively makes the child more like an object, rather than a living being. “Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear,” is a strong quote that dehumanizes the child (2). Imbecile means a stupid person, an adjective to describe one who is less than. Furthermore, saying that it could have been born defective negates the idea that anything is wrong with the child due to the treatment that he or she endures. The child is a symbol of selflessness and caring for others, while society represents the selfish need to be happy at the expense of others. Those who leave Omelas are a representation of people in a real society who refuse to conform to cruel acts that exist in society. Yet, these people leave without trying to help the child, which includes their own form of selfishness. The narrator also describes Omelas using words like “sparkling” and “bright-towered” to paint a picture of beautiful scenery to start the story with the feeling of paradise (1).
The tone of the piece is calm and warm. The narrator never becomes overly emotional and the words Le Guin writes throughout the story give off a sense of serenity. When the narrator speaks of Omelas, they use words such as “O miracle” to describe how they feel (1). The word miracle is warm and associated with good things. There is also a careless feeling that the narrator emits, using words like “bleh” (1).
“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” speaks very briefly of the internal struggle that the people of Omelas face. Because Le Guin mentions this issue so briefly, it adds to the passive and calm feeling that the piece invokes. If the narrator lingers on such a sad subject for too long, it will change the feeling of the piece because Le Guin is then being forced to use more brutal words to describe the terrible abuse.
Flags don’t usually sparkle, yet, Le Guin writes that “[t]he rigging of the boats in harbor sparkled with flags” (1). The location has Green Fields which depicts beautiful land and an image of peace. Le Guin uses this setting masterfully to indicate a warm tone when she talks about how “the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air” (1). The use of colors and mention of sunlight warms the tone up significantly here. Even as she brings up the child in the dark room, she mentions the cracks of light and the sunlight.
The point of view adds to the specific tone that this story invokes. If Le Guin writes from the point of view of a citizen of Omelas in the first person, the tone can shift to a brighter, less calm disposition. This is not necessarily just based on the feeling of the citizen, but perhaps her goal at that point would be to show that the abuse of the child is worth it, therefore emphasizing the sunny tone even more. Or perhaps if the point of view changes to the child, the setting of being in a dark room alone will be enough to change the tone and the mood.
Overall, Ursula K. Le Guin uses diction and tone to emphasize the ideas of morality and selfishness. In a calm manner, she asks the question, is the suffering of one person really worth the happiness of others, and even though such a dark topic is mentioned, the story still gives the feeling of warmth and joy. The feeling of warmth and the feeling of distance allows almost a clinical study of how when a group treats a person inhumanely just for the sake of their own happiness, some might justify their actions while others are unable to conform to this.
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