The Morality of Creation: Dostoevsky and William James in Le Guin's 'Omelas'

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Author: Shoshana Knapp
Editor: David L. Siegel
Date: 1993
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 12)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,053 words

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[In the following essay, Knapp asserts that Le Guin's short story “The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas” compellingly and artistically presents the theme of absolute moral accountability.]

Ursula K. Le Guin firmly asserts that, at the time she was writing “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” she had forgotten Dostoevsky and remembered only William James. “The fact is, I haven't been able to re-read Dostoevsky, much as I loved him, since I was twenty-five, and I'd simply forgotten he used the idea. But when I met it in James's `The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,' it was with a shock of recognition.” We are, however, entitled to be sceptical, and, as D. H. Lawrence suggests, to trust the tale instead of the teller. Lawrence's advice, in fact, has a special relevance to Le Guin's fable, a tale that involves and implicates the reader in the telling, and one in which the reader and narrator, just as surely as the characters in the story, are on trial as moral agents.

In presenting a country where universal joy—perfect, intelligent, and mature—depends on the confinement and deprivation of one innocent child, Le Guin is indicting her reader and her own narrator, who work together to construct the hideous moral universe of Omelas. Although this universe has parallels in the writings of both William James (whom Le Guin remembers) and Dostoevsky (whom she thinks she has forgotten), Le Guin goes beyond their formulations and beyond the moral-political lesson, usually assigned to her story, that “no society should rest on the misery of the unfortunate” [X. J. Kennedy, Instructor's Manual to Accompany An Introduction to Fiction, second edition, 1979]. Her actual subject is the proper morality of art itself. A genuinely moral artist, Le Guin implies, would articulate a coherent universe in which connections and loyalties are possible, the sort of place envisaged by Le Guin in The Dispossessed as “a landscape inhabitable by human beings.” Omelas does not qualify, for reasons Dostoevsky, at least, would have understood.

William James's “certain lost soul,” of course, was clearly useful to Le Guin as a starting point. There are several similarities. In “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” James writes (and Le Guin quotes):

Or 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 far-off 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?

The basic situation, for Le Guin and for James, is the promise of mass bliss in exchange for a unique torment.

In both cases, furthermore, people are...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100003066