Leaving Omelas: Questions of Faith and Understanding

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Author: Jerre Collins
Date: Fall 1990
From: Studies in Short Fiction(Vol. 27, Issue 4)
Reprint In: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 69)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,463 words

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[(essay date fall 1990) In the following essay, Collins discusses Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" as a piece of sociopolitical fiction, and asks why this and other such stories have not succeeded in transforming the American conscience.]

Ursula Le Guin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," subtitled "Variations on a theme by William James," is a critique of American moral life.1 At least that is what Ms. Le Guin tells us in the introduction she added when the story was collected in The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1975). First she quotes the passage from James's "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life" to which the subtitle refers:

[I]f 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 far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment, 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?(James 297; qtd. in Le Guin 275)

Le Guin then indicates that her story is to be read politically by adding, "The dilemma of the American conscience can hardly be better stated" (275).

Her story is about a society's use of a scapegoat, a pharmakos, to keep the rest of the society happy; and the dilemma of the American conscience seems to be twofold: we cannot renounce the exploitation of others that makes possible our high standard of living, nor can we renounce the scapegoat-motif that justifies our comfortable life. By challenging us to renounce both, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" takes up what Hans Robert Jauss calls the "socially formative function that belongs to literature as it competes with other arts and social forces in the emancipation of mankind from its natural, religious, and social bonds" (45).

But this story and other stories like it have not so far achieved any notable emancipation; they have not transformed the American conscience. Why not? I propose to take this story as seriously as we are meant to take it, examine how it works as a challenge to our conscience, and then suggest two factors that limit the radicality of that challenge.

As the text begins, the narrator is describing the bustle of preparations for the Festival of Summer in the city of Omelas, whose people are perfectly happy. She2 makes explicit the reader's complicity in the world-building activity of the story: "Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, ... for I certainly cannot suit you all" (278). She proceeds to supply examples, and repeatedly asks the reader to change the examples or supply others, as indices3 of utopian technology, utopian sex, and utopian drugs (among which the narrator playfully includes beer). Her negotiations entice the reader to commit himself or herself to the project of constructing a utopia, a happy world that is intelligible, that forms an intelligible whole.

After more description of the beginning of the Festival of Summer, the narrator pauses to ask, "Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing" (280), and we know that we are now approaching the key that should make the whole intelligible.

Again the narrator insists both on giving particular details and on signaling that the details are mere indices and may be varied, so long as the alternate index has the same signification, carries the same meaning:

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. ... In the 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.(281)

The child's situation and its misery are described at some length. The passage closes with a physical description of the child, a description familiar to us from the photo-journalism of war, displacement, and famine:

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.(281)

The narrator stresses that all the people of Omelas know about the child, and they all know that there is a connection between the child's unhappiness and their prosperity:

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.(282)

At first the latter items on this list may seem to be excessive and facetious. However, extravagant causality is frequently found in a particular kind of narrative meant to explain or justify the current state of things. For example, the third chapter of Genesis presents the necessity of painful labor (in both senses) and the necessity of dying as consequences of Adam and Eve's eating the forbidden fruit. Let us call this kind of narrative, which justifies or makes sense of a painful aspect of the status quo, a narrative theodicy.

"Theodicy" originally designated a theoretical attempt to explain the problem of evil, to "justify the ways of God to man." It takes its place within the larger human project of the creation of an ordered world of experience, a world in which everything "fits" or has its place--what Benjy bellowed for at the end of The Sound and the Fury. Peter Berger calls such an ordered world of experience a "nomos," a rule-governed universe (19). Anything that disorders our world--such as death, sickness, and evil, but also economic and social privations that lead to sickness, suffering, and early death--can cause anomie, a loss of nomos. Anomie is the chaos into which we fall when our world falls apart. It is a threatening sense of meaninglessness and disorder. We can escape anomie only by placing the disorder within a larger pattern of order. This is precisely what theodicies do.

A theodicy need not be religious. Berger notes that "A theodicy may ... be established by projecting compensation for the anomic phenomena into a future understood in this-worldly terms" (68), and he gives as an example the recurrent millenarianism of the Biblical or Jewish-Christian-Muslim tradition. But the same kind of projection can be seen in secular form. For example, several of Chekhov's plays include a character who speaks, like Vershinin in Three Sisters, in secular millenarian terms:

In two or three hundred years, or maybe in a thousand years--it doesn't matter how long exactly--life will be different. It will be happy. Of course, we shan't be able to enjoy that future life, but all the same, what we're living for now is to create it, we work and ... yes, we suffer in order to create it. That's the goal of our life, and you might say that's the only happiness we shall ever achieve.(280)

Here we see that the suffering of the present, even the perceived lack of meaningfulness of the present, is justified, made meaningful, understood in terms of a humanly satisfying future.

A theodicy can be theoretically articulated (in the type of discourse Barthes calls intellectual), but it can also find expression or be created in the other forms of discourse, including narrative. Perhaps the most powerful, most effective form of theodicy is a narrative: the life of Christ, for instance, or of Socrates, or Marxist apocalyptic history. A good narrative can "make sense" quite compellingly, in a way hard for other forms of discourse to match.4 And when a culture's narrative theodicy begins to lose its explanatory power, the result can be great anomie. It is not surprising, then, that a culture will resist a story that challenges its theodicy.

Let us return to "Omelas." Immediately after describing the suffering child, the narrator adds:

If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, 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. ... The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.(282)

The connection between the child's suffering and the people's happiness is stressed, yet while the narrator says that the connection can be understood, she advances no details, however hypothetically, as indices of the rationality or intelligibility of the connection. If the child's suffering makes sense, that sense is not demonstrated. But if a theodicy fails to make sense of such a radical inequality of power and privilege, it is a "bad" theodicy; and accepting it implies either stupidity or bad faith. Of course, not accepting it leaves one open to anomie.

If the child's suffering is not made rational, the Omelasians' acquiescence is rationalized. After describing the child, the narrator explains how those who come to visit the child, mostly young people, come to terms with what they see:

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.(282-83)

This rationalization has a familiar ring to it. Similar justifications of the status quo sometimes appear in discussions of "first world" relations with the third world or discussions of relations between the prosperous classes and the unprivileged groups of, say, America. In the story, the rationalization rings hollow because the narrator has told us earlier that the child had not always been imprisoned in the dark room and "can remember sunlight and its mother's voice," and also that it wants out, even pleads to be released (281). However imbecile it may be, it knows (remembers) an alternative to its present suffering and wants that alternative. The bad faith of the Omelasians' rationalization is implied.

The next step in our analysis of how Le Guin's story challenges the American conscience depends on the distinction between story and text. It is often noted that one of the peculiarities of narrative is that different texts can "tell the same story." For example, many see the three synoptic gospels telling the same Christ-story (when compared to the Gospel of John). Moreover, the Christ-story itself can be read as a sequence of functions so that other texts with different events and characters can be said to be telling the Christ-story too (or part of it). We may call this the level of the ur-story. On a higher level of abstraction, the Christ-story and, say, the Oedipus story can be said to be alternate embodiments of the hero-story (see Lord Raglan, The Hero). We may call this the level of the ur-ur-story. ... And so on, as we stutter into infinite regress, onto ever higher levels of abstraction. Note that on each level we may speak meaningfully of variations: variant texts of the same story, variant stories of the same ur-story, and so on.

One way of specifying the relationship among levels is to see the ur-story not as an abstraction from similar stories but as a code or "master plot" by means of which the reader can construct, as he or she reads, innumerable stories in the image of their master. For example, Frederick Jameson, who calls the ur-story the "master code or Ur-narrative," aspires in The Political Unconscious to show how all narratives can be seen to be telling (at least a part of) the Marxist Ur-narrative (19-22). "Interpretation," he tells us, "is here construed as an essentially allegorical act, which consists in rewriting a given text in terms of a particular interpretive master code" (10).

Whether or not interpretation is "essentially allegorical," Le Guin's story, by conspicuously omitting the explanation that makes the child's suffering understandable, and by conspicuously alluding to elements both of the relations between the economically advanced West and the "backward" countries of the third world, and of the relations between privileged and unprivileged classes within the West, prompts an allegorical reading, a "rewriting" of the given text "in terms of a particular interpretive master code," in this case the Western capitalist ur-story.

But rewriting may be reversible; a flaw in the story may reveal or unveil a flaw in the ur-story. Le Guin's story, by conspicuously failing to enable the reader "to perceive the terrible justice of reality," suggests a similar failure of Western capitalist theodicy. The people of Omelas are able to rationalize to their satisfaction a situation that enables them to continue to enjoy happiness and prosperity. But we are told only one segment of the rationalization, and the weakest segment at that (namely, that the child would be more wretched out of the closet of suffering than in it), the one most strongly suggesting the Omelasians' bad faith. A full rationalization, as we know from "our" world, would include historical, economic, political, racial-genetic-physical, geographical, and religious elements so that such radical inequalities would indeed "make sense." It is because Le Guin's story has by this point become rather obviously an allegory of Western hegemony that the narrator can proceed to say, with a little more bite to her words, "Now do you believe in them [the people of Omelas]? Are they not more credible?" (283). Indeed they are; they look a lot like us.

The story's more radical calling of the reader into question is yet to come, however, in the text's long last paragraph, which the narrator introduces with a monitory "But there is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible" (283). Sometimes a boy or girl, man or woman is not persuaded by the Omelasian theodicy nor by the prospect of the good life. For them, neither good faith nor bad faith suffices. Sooner or later, they walk out of the city. And when evening comes, instead of returning they walk on. In a final challenge to our moral imagination, Le Guin has her narrator say:

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.(284)

At the very end, then, the story points toward the real utopia, a negative space defined by its difference from Omelas.5

Le Guin's authorial comment about "the dilemma of the American conscience," with which we began, ratifies, as it were, the political-economic reading I have outlined here.

The curious fact is that the dilemma, both for the American conscience and for the West's in general, has for a long time remained, and continues to remain, a dilemma. The theodicy of Western capitalism is not working well, but neither has it failed altogether. Its continued imperfect success may be attributed partly to bad faith, partly to the extreme difficulty of imagining a genuine alternative and how to get there, but also partly, I suggest, to a third reason.

Le Guin's text can be read in terms of another ur-story besides that of Western capitalism: the religious story of the "suffering servant," the one who suffers to ensure the happiness of the many. A version of this story has been canonized in Christian redemption theology. In this reading, when Le Guin's text fails to explain, to make sense of the child's suffering, that failure suggests that the various reasons advanced in the religious story also fail finally to make sense.6

My point is that the possibility of reading Le Guin's story alternately as a religious allegory and as a politico-economic allegory reveals a narrative-structural similarity in the two ur-stories, and furthermore suggests that some of the difficulty in throwing off Western rationalizations of exploitation is accounted for by a hidden link between redemption-theology and complacency about exploitation. The same ur-story (or ur-ur-story) is involved: exploiting the peoples of the third world, or one's indigenous unprivileged groups (blacks, women, the poor generally) is homologous to being redeemed by the "suffering servant." Rejection of capitalist exploitation-theodicy undermines the redemption-theodicy since they are structurally so similar, and threatens great anomie. To walk into the darkness, unable to imagine where one might be going, is very much like walking off the edge of the world. Or rather, in the archetypal imagery of our culture, leaving bright Omelas and walking into the darkness is like going from life into death.

This brings us to one last complication. The Bible, our culture's source of the suffering-servant theodicy, entwines this theodicy with another one, which we may call a "resurrection" theodicy. This theodicy appears already in the Old Testament and is foregrounded in the New. For example, Jesus suffers and dies, only to rise again to a transformed, glorious life in the presence of the Father. A frequently cited "natural" exemplar of this theodicy is the caterpillar that seems to die but instead is transformed into a butterfly.7

It is this second theodicy to which Le Guin's story appeals and from which it derives much of its power. If leaving Omelas is like going from life into death, that death (according to the faith of those who leave) leads to a new, transformed life in a place beyond the mountains, a life so different from the present life that it is unimaginable.

But Le Guin's appeal to the resurrection theodicy weakens her attack on the suffering-servant theodicy, since in the Judeo-Christian tradition it is the resurrection theodicy that justifies recourse to the pharmakos: it is all right for one person to suffer for the benefit of another, because even the sufferer will end up benefiting--his or her final, transformed state will be vastly better than his or her first state.

Our original question was: Why hasn't Le Guin's story (and others like it) transformed the American conscience? Now we have an answer. On the one hand, the secular, economic version of the suffering-servant theodicy gains power from the religious version, still strong in our culture. Because the economic and religious theodicies are quite similar, a threat to one can easily be seen as a threat to the other. Readers may resist Le Guin's story in order to protect themselves from an increase in anomie. On the other hand, the theodicy of resurrection or of renewed, transformed life, cannot function for us as the alternative it might otherwise be, because in our religious culture it is precisely resurrection that gives the suffering-servant theodicy its final justification. So when Le Guin makes sense of a utopian gesture (leaving Omelas) in the imagery of renewed life beyond death, she indirectly buttresses the very scapegoat theodicy she hopes to undermine.


1. This story has received little critical attention; it receives a passing mention in some studies of The Dispossessed (Klein, Somay). In the one previous article on this story, Shoshana Knapp identifies the morally obtuse narrator as the "creator" of the false utopia of Omelas and argues that the real point of the story is an indictment of the immoral artist (and reader) who would create such a world. But she must apologetically "hasten to distinguish between the narrator of the story and its author" who, after all, is the real creator of both Omelas and the narrator (79). I see the story not as an indictment of "artistic responsibility" (77) but as a critique of moral imagination. Knapp says that the political interpretation of the story that Le Guin herself urges upon us "is suggestive, but its value is limited" (76-77). I propose to read the story the way Le Guin wants us to, in order to investigate why the value of the political reading is limited.

2. In the conventions of criticism, a narrator who is not a character in the story is as sexless as the Judeo-Christian god. Taking a cue from Judeo-Christian practice, in which male writers constantly refer to the unsexed god as "He," I shall refer to the narrator of this story as "she," following the sex of the author--a better procedure than using "it."

3. Barthes divides the units out of which narratives are composed, in one of several divisions, into "functions," which are "horizontally" correlational and refer back and forth to each other (if James Bond picks up a telephone, the correlate occurs when he puts it down) and indexes or "indices," which are "vertically" correlational:

In order to understand what an indicial notation 'is for', one must move to a higher level (character's actions or narration), for only there is the indice clarified: the power of the administrative machine behind Bond, indexed by the number of telephones [in Barthes's example, four], ... finds its meaning only on the level of a general typology of the actants (Bond is on the side of order).(92-3)

The index (or indice) is variable among a range of alternate signs that would convey the same signification: Bond could have five phones on his desk, or a call-board, or a speaker-phone, etc. In addition, a range of indices not having to do with telephone communication could convey the same signification: for example, Bond could choose a car from the car pool, a secretary could hand him airline tickets as he leaves the office, etc.

In my paper, and perhaps also in Le Guin's introduction to her story, "America" functions as an index.

4. If, as Heidegger and others maintain, humans are thoroughly temporal beings, then the discourse-form of narrative can be especially meaning-full for us, since it forms an intelligible whole that is a temporal whole. I agree with Paul Ricoeur that the sense a narrative makes is a temporal sense, and what it makes sense of is likewise temporal (Ricoeur 3-4). And what a theodicy must present as an intelligible whole, what it must make sense of, most basically, is our temporal human existence, our lives, especially those parts of our lives most resistant to sense--suffering, sickness, death, and privations of all kinds. Further, as Ricoeur argues, narrative makes sense by enacting a kind of dynamic "synthesis" (one of Aristotle's definitions of "plot" or emplotment) of discordant and even heterogeneous elements (33, 65-66). The ability to bring together a diversity of elements in a temporal concord makes narrative an apt form of discourse for a theodicy.

5. Bülent Somay states that "Utopia for [Le Guin] ... becomes a glimpsed and elusive hope founded on a consecutive set of negations" (36).

6. Through the years there have, of course, been numerous attacks on redemption theology specifically or on the scapegoat theodicy more generally. Among these attacks is Dostoevsky's in The Brothers Karamazov. In her introduction to "Omelas," Le Guin wants to prompt a more political reading of her own story, so she distances herself from Dostoevsky, quoting William James instead of Karamazov. Furthermore, she insists that she didn't get the idea for her story from Karamazov; indeed, she had "simply forgotten" that Dostoevsky too had attacked the scapegoat theodicy. "The fact is," she says, "I haven't been able to re-read Dostoevsky, much as I loved him, since I was twenty-five." A few lines later, she specifies that her aversion to him is political rather than religious: she can't read him because "his early social radicalism reversed itself, leaving him a violent reactionary" (273). See Knapp for a discussion of the Dostoevskian parallels in "Omelas."

7. A good example of a text embodying the resurrection theodicy's ur-story can be found in the Catholic Mass for the Dead: "For Your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not taken away; and when the abode of this earthly sojourn is destroyed, an eternal dwelling is prepared in heaven" (Lefebvre 852). Here we see the basic structure: loss is transformed into gain, deprivation into abundance, but the gain or abundance is on a "higher" level. Furthermore, the loss becomes the condition of movement to the higher level.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. "Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives." Image-Music-Text. Ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang-Farrar, 1977. 79-124.

Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1969.

Chekhov, Anton. Plays. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1959.

James, William. "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life." William James: The Essential Writings. Ed. Bruce Wilshire. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1971. 294-308.

Jameson, Frederick. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

Jauss, Hans Robert. Toward an Aesthetic of Reception. Trans. Timothy Bahti. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1982.

Klein, Gérard. "Le Guin's 'Aberrant' Opus: Escaping the Trap of Discontent." Science-Fiction Studies 4 (1977): 287-95.

Knapp, Shoshana. "The Morality of Creation: Dostoevsky and William James in Le Guin's 'Omelas.'" The Journal of Narrative Technique 15.1 (Winter 1985): 75-81.

Lefebvre, Dom Gaspar, O.S.B. Saint Andrew Daily Missal. St. Paul, MN: Lohmann, 1961.

Le Guin, Ursula. "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." The Wind's Twelve Quarters. New York: Harper, 1975. 273-84.

Raglan, Lord. The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama. New York: Meridian-NAL, 1979.

Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative. Vol. 1. Trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

Somay, Bülent. "Towards an Open-ended Utopia." Science-Fiction Studies 11 (1984): 25-38.

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