Originally part of The Wind’s Twelve Quarters
I started reading this in November last year but didn’t actually take the time to finish it. Then just recently, a friend randomly asked if I would escape from Omelas and where will I go?
Le Guin died last month that we are once again reminded of her beautiful contribution to American Lit. I picked up Omelas again and this time, I finished the whole narrative. It is really short I don’t know why I didn’t take it seriously on my first attempt. Now, I got the answer to the question.
Some inhabitants of a peaceful kingdom cannot tolerate the act of cruelty that underlies its happiness.
The story “Omelas” was first published in New Dimensions 3, a hard-cover science fiction anthology edited by Robert Silverberg, in October 1973, and the following year it won Le Guin the prestigious Hugo Award for best short story.
It was subsequently printed in her short story collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters in 1975.
“Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time.” Its people are happy people. It is a utopia. But, “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.”
Inside a room is a child.
“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.”
They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. 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.
That is the consequence of that happy place. One child has to suffer. Everyone knows about the child and they can’t do anything about it. Those are the terms. If they get the child out of the room, Omelas’ beauty and delight would wither and be destroyed.
Some people just live with the fact. Some actually leave Omelas. To where they are going, that we are not sure of.
This can be interpreted in so many ways. When I think of Spring Day and how it is like leaving childhood behind, it reminds me of Omelas. Omelas as the place of childhood; the place where the kids in us were once happy. The child in the dark room; crying in misery, is the child in us that dies inside. That is one way to put it.
Then, people often ask if you will leave Omelas or if you will stay. I don’t think that is the question to be asked. If you leave, what makes you different from the ones who stayed? If you leave, the child will still suffer. If you stay, the situation stays the same. My answer is probably the most selfish of all. This is probably why I got 1.75 in General Ethics!
I will leave and take the child with me.
I know it will destroy Omelas but can’t we, humans, be responsible for our own happiness without depending it on the child or anyone or anything for that matter? I understand very well that this is a concept of utilitarianism. The greatest good for the greatest number. I used to believe that I will always choose what is best for the many, but I realized how much my perspective has changed through time.
If you know the Korean drama called Goblin, there is a scene there where Eun Tak saw a truck that was about to hit a school van and could kill many children. She used her car to stop it from happening. She saved the kids in expense of her own life. That is for the greater good and the greatest number, yes. The lives saved is a lot compared to one life that is hers. But that was her choice. She got to choose. The child didn’t.
Act or rule utilitarianism, this is downright unjust. If I stay and do nothing, guilt will eat me. If I leave and do nothing, I will be haunted by the thoughts of the child locked up in that room. Can I live through that? Definitely not. Maybe I’m kind of putting justice in my hands, but my choice will not change.
I was asked, what if the child doesn’t want to go? The child wants to go: “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.”
I shared these thoughts with my friends, of course. I love a friend’s evaluation of our choices the most: “So you would rather sacrifice the town and risk the child. And she, would sacrifice the child. At the end of the day, your choice is just neither about the town nor the child. It’s about making yourself feel better.”
That’s the beauty of the story. Whatever choice you make, you are choosing yourself. I hope we all have the courage to choose ourselves. Maybe that is selfishness. Maybe that is self love. I don’t know. Nothing is absolute.
Another path I want to discuss about the story is saving the child while staying in Omelas. Of course, they reminded me again that Omelas will wither away because that is the term. I know. The stubborn shit in me just want to try, yano? I mean, who made the terms? It is all man made. Who made the society? Who set the rules of right and wrong? Who says the norms are norms? Is this about religion? Is it like the Bible and the forbidden fruit? Is it history repeating itself? We will never know unless we try; unless we do something.
In my friend’s words: “However, no one has really tried so how could they say that saving the child would destroy Omelas?”
Maybe we are not changing because we are not doing something to actually change. Maybe our trying is just an empty word forgotten right after the moment we said it. Trying is not trying unless you do it for real.
How about the consequence? Well, we deal with it. There’s no other way around. Maybe for some, it is okay to face the guilt alone. That is just not me.
Maybe there is really no right and wrong answer. We define things differently, anyway. But at the end of the day, we need to live up with our choices and decisions. Maybe my answer just says so much about me wanting to make a difference. In whatever means and to what extent, I don’t know. I just really have to save the child.
Maybe like Nietzsche, I don’t believe in utilitarianism as much as I believe in virtue ethics. What do you think? Are you going to walk away from Omelas? If you’d ask me where would I go, the answer would also be “I don’t know.” At least for now.
Where would you go? Maybe that unknown is life. Maybe outside Omelas is death. The answer is within us.
“talking about the “meaning” of a story, we need to be careful not to diminish it, impoverish it. A story can say different things to different people. It may have no definitive reading. And a reader may find a meaning in it that the writer never intended, never imagined, yet recognizes at once as valid.”
I love this so much because it says more about the reader than the writer. Le Guin is pure genius.
“Omelas already exists: no need to build it or choose it. We already live here –in the narrow, foul, dark prison we let our ignorance, fear, and hatred build for us and keep us in, here in the splendid, beautiful city of life..”
Let me know your answer. I would love to know your value of morality. Humans are greedy and selfish by nature. I don’t mean that as negative. Your perspective of positive and negative depends on you. So, I’ll just leave it to you on how you are gonna take it.
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