Saturday, July 13, 2019

Living in Omelas

We are living in Omelas. Do you know the story? The story of a magical, beautiful society in which everything the people have that is good depends on keeping an innocent child caged, abused, neglected? Ursula K. Le Guin writes,

"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. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar…The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room.”

Le Guin calls it “a room,” but we soon learn that this is a cage. An enclosure to keep a living thing from obtaining their freedom; an indictment from one in power about the intrinsic value of one lacking empowerment.

“In the room,” she continues, “a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten ... it sits hunched in the corner … 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.”

Who are these people, the ones who come to glance furtively, guiltily, with such repulsion? They are the people of Omelas, who by custom or law, must witness the child’s conditions with their own eyes at least once in their lifetime. Admirable, in its own way, this act – at least citizens are fully informed, required to have knowledge of the horror beneath the surface. Le Guin notes that without exception, these witnesses – usually young people – are horrified, and want to rescue the child. Of course, Le Guin says, “… that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one … The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.”

Yes: Omelas is a utopia built on top of the question why, which must never be asked.

Le Guin does not sugar-coat the realities of the caged child’s life. “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 … 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."

Ursula K. Le Guin died just 18 months ago, in January 2018. I want to think she was somehow spared the daily news of children's faces inside cages even within the boundaries of her beloved California, verified reports such as this one from the New York Times: “Children as young as 7 and 8, many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears, are caring for infants they’ve just met, the lawyers said. Toddlers without diapers are relieving themselves in their pants.” I want to think Le Guin was spared these images and reports – but I understand that she saw this story coming years ago, in all its different manifestations. Indeed – Omelas has existed, exists, in so many places, in so many times, that we almost don’t know anything else is possible.


Le Guin’s story reminds us that it is a choice, you see. A choice to know the child in the cage suffers; a choice to allow, by doing nothing, the child's suffering to continue. The child is "it," not a person. That makes the knowing easier for the people of Omelas. That makes it easier to be a citizen of a land dependent on the pain of innocents. I can even imagine kind-hearted Omelasians traveling to other lands on missions of mercy, as saviors for the poor children of other nations – building hospitals and schools for children trapped in poverty, donating clothing to victims of war or famine or natural disaster. That would be allowed. That would not disrupt Omelas itself.

But sometimes … sometimes, Le Guin writes, a person comes to see the child and cannot make peace with this truth. Those people wrestle with their souls. They cannot make the choice to save the caged child – thus shredding the entire fabric of their country - but they also cannot continue to benefit from that child’s torture, either.

Those are the ones, Le Guin says, “who walk away from Omelas.” Instead of going home to comfort, family, job and willed ignorance, “…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.”

Even though Le Guin warns that what lies beyond Omelas is unimaginable, I’ve tried to imagine it. Even though she tells us each person goes alone, I’ve hoped for a kind of solidarity between individuals who cannot accept the terms of this social contract.  And even though she says the ones who walk away never return to Omelas, I wonder. I wonder what would happen if those who walk away from Omelas return to their country together, pooling all that they have learned on their journey, willing to ask the ‘why’ of it all: Why must even the mere chance of one child’s happiness cause the loss of an entire society’s privileges? Why is this gross imbalance of power misrepresented as balance? Who made up that rule? Who decides that change is destructive, rather than creative? And why does everyone in Omelas believe this "fact," swallow this premise hook, line and sinker?

I imagine, in my wildest dreams, citizens willing to face their darkest fears, willing to accept that change might not result in catastrophe, but something even more valuable: self-respect. Humanity. I imagine citizens willing to pay the price for such a prize.

I imagine that returning to Omelas would destroy Omelas as it currently exists; Omelas would no longer be Omelas. It would be something else. Not utopian, not idyllic. Not the Omelasian Dream. I don’t know what we would name it. I don’t know if it has ever truly existed before - though I must say a few groups, both "civilized" and "primitive" - have made the attempt. I don’t know if Le Guin’s narrative ends on a hopeful or doomed note. Must we invent an entirely new world? Is nothing in this one salvageable?

Yes, I struggle with questions about living in Omelas, about the children in our cages. Do you?

“Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” originally appeared in the short story collection, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, by Ursula K. Le Guin, in1975. It has since been reprinted multiple times.