The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (Great Short Stories I)

I have been thinking for a long time that I should put up reviews of short stories which have really impressed me. This is one of a series, hopefully to continue periodically.

I do not remember when I first read The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin – might have been during my college years, or a few years later – but I remember the shock I got. The story was part of a fantasy collection. Until then, I was not very much cognizant with Ms. LeGuin’s work: I was more of a fan of hard science fiction on the lines of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. But this story literally took my breath away, all the more since I had not expected something of this calibre in a compilation of fantasy stories.

However, the full depth of the themes discussed did not strike me until I read Aatujeevitham (“Goat Life”), an award-winning Malayalam novel by the author Benyamin. Suddenly I realised what Ursula K. LeGuin was saying – and I also realised that I was not one of “those who walk away”: it was easier said than done. The shame has been with me ever since.

Well, on with the story.

***

Omelas is an idyllic city. The time and place are not mentioned; the author gives us freedom to imagine the when and the where:

…Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all.

However, the author is at pains to ensure that this is not your standard fairy tale paradise. For there is no king, there is no slavery or servitude: they also got on without “the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb”. The people were also not simple, the kind found in fantasy tales – “no dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians”. Ms. LeGuin says that these were people as complex as us, with one significant difference: they were eternally joyful. It was not the bliss of naiveté and ignorance; it was true unadulterated happiness of a “mature, intelligent and passionate people whose lives were not wretched”. For according to the author, we have lost the ability to appreciate the beauty of happiness:

…The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy.

The people of Omelas may have laws; they may have science and technology; they may have drugs and liquor. Ursula K. LeGuin is not sure, and she does not care, because happiness is the only thing she concentrates on – happiness without guilt.

The story starts with the description of the Festival of Summer, an extremely joyous occasion in this city of happiness. All the people are marching towards the Green Fields at the north of the city, where a horse race is to take place. Even the horses are participating voluntarily, as the author is at pains to inform us that they are wearing halters without bits, and that “they were vastly excited, the horse being the only animal who has adopted our ceremonies as his own”. Soon everybody reaches the fields and the festival starts.

Most of the procession have reached the Green Fields by now. A marvellous smell of cooking goes forth from the red and blue tents of the provisioners. The faces of small children are amiably sticky; in the benign grey beard of a man a couple of crumbs of rich pastry are entangled. The youths and girls have mounted their horses and are beginning to group around the starting line of the course. An old woman, small, fat, and laughing, is passing out flowers from a basket, and tall young men wear her flowers in their shining hair. A child of nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd, alone, playing on a wooden flute. People pause to listen, and they smile, but they do not speak to him, for he never ceases playing and never sees them, his dark eyes wholly rapt in the sweet, thin magic of the tune.

He finishes, and slowly lowers his hands holding the wooden flute.

As if that little private silence were the signal, all at once a trumpet sounds from the pavilion near the starting line: imperious, melancholy, piercing. The horses rear on their slender legs, and some of them neigh in answer. Sober-faced, the young riders stroke the horses’ necks and soothe them, whispering, “Quiet, quiet, there my beauty, my hope….” They begin to form in rank along the starting line. The crowds along the racecourse are like a field of grass and flowers in the wind. The Festival of Summer has begun.

By this time, we are lulled into the peaceful mood of the story, almost falling asleep under the gentle sun of the sylvan landscape, listening to the soothing music. However, there is a slight unease: all of this seems too good to be true – and when is the story going to come? This is when Ms. LeGuin uses something akin to a jump cut in a movie (“Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing”), to take us to a basement or cellar under one of the beautiful public buildings. In that place, there is a dank and congested tool room which is always kept locked. In this windowless and airless 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. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes–the child has no understanding of time or interval–sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. 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. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal 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.

This is such a shock that one cannot blame the reader if he or she almost drops the book out of fear and disgust. The author pulls no punches in her narrative: here the prose is as cruel and stark as it was soft and saccharine in the first half of the story. And this abrupt shift is apt, for it is the child’s misery that pays for the happiness of Omelas. The people of the city seems to have made a pact with the powers that be (who or what they are is not specifically mentioned) to exchange the abject misery of one individual for the eternal happiness of the multitude.

Everyone in the city knows this. It is explained to them during their coming of age. Many of them come to see the child; most of them are outraged and disgusted, but they accept it as a fact of life. Even if they want to release the child, they could not do it, for that would destroy the happiness of the city forever – and to “throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed”. So they rant and rave, but they accept. They even philosophise that the child, even if freed, would not be really happy since it has been imprisoned for so long as to forget what the outside world felt like. They feel compassion, and it is this compassion which enable them to appreciate the beauty of their architecture and the profundity of their science; also, it enables them to be gentle with children because “[t]hey know that if the wretched one were not there snivelling in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer “.

It is here that the author makes her final startling shift in the narrative. After saying that this information of the misery of one child has made Omelas more credible to the reader, she goes on to describe something, which in her opinion, is quite incredible.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. Night falls; the traveller must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. 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.

These are the people who give the title to the story; and even though their story is tantalisingly only a stub, the reader is left feeling that this last paragraph is the whole essence of the tale.

 

***

The idea of the story revolves around the concept of the “scapegoat” – the person or animal given up in sacrifice to an omnipotent deity so that the wellbeing of the multitude is ensured (also adapted to devastating effect in Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery). However, Ursula K. LeGuin gives credit to a quote from the 19th Century philosopher William James for the idea behind the story. In his essay “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”, James wrote that “if 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 faroff edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, 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?” In other words, we would almost all of us walk away from Omelas.

I also believed this until I read Aatujeevitham, a novel based on the true story of a young man forced to live like a goat on goat farm in Saudi Arabia. He is given only wet bread to eat and water to drink; he has to live in the open during the blazing summer day as well as the freezing winter night. Dreaming of “Gulf Gold”, he gets only years of misery. Thankfully he escapes. Many less fortunate don’t.

Reading this novel, I realised suddenly that Najeeb, the young man in this novel, was the abused child in Ms. LeGuin’s story – and I am one of those who do not walk away from Omelas.

Expanding this to our world as a whole, the story becomes a chilling indictment of modern society as a whole – about the compromises humanity as a whole makes for the happiness of the majority. One needs only to look at the five-star restaurants bordering the slums in Mumbai or to contrast the stark, drought-ridden landscape of Africa with the glittering cityscape of New York. We know this, yet we sweep it under the carpet in our minds, taking the fatalistic attitude that some things can never be changed. The following words of the author sound ominously familiar:

Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox. 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.

Have we all not, at least once in a while, used these justifications in our mind?


***

Yet there have been those who tried to set the child free: to change Omelas for a better society, albeit with the happiness content reduced. However, their efforts have mostly resulted in the creation of another version of the same. The identity of the abused child changes, but not the principle. There will still be the room, the child and the torture.

We need those who have the courage to walk away to that unknown country which may not exist at all. For there they may find happiness that does not need music and dance, or festivals. That Omelas resides inside oneself. Maybe they can come back and guide others into the same country.

Because then we may find happiness which does not require an abused child.

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