Utopia at a cost

In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, Ursula Le Guin describes a Utopian society that exists with a price.

The short story is written in first-person, in the style of the narrator “communicating” towards the reader. The story does not have a plot, as it does not have a protagonist or antagonist, nor does it have a story line. Instead, Le Guin describes a setting with vague details, and the circumstances of how it exists. The narrator describes a city in the middle of a festival, and the citizens “were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched” (Le Guin, 2). However, the narrator does not give a definite description of the society itself. The narrator gives a utopian description, and then retracts it, and says that the city has qualities like the provided description. For example: “they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that; it doesn’t matter” (Le Guin, 3).

Later in the short story, it is revealed that there is a neglected child locked in a room in a basement: “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…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” (Le Guin, 4). It is also revealed that the utopia can only exist because of the misery of that same small child locked in the basement: “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” (Le Guin, 5-6). The citizens living in Omelas must accept this fact, and those who don’t leave the city.

I believe the story is meant to be taken as an allegory, and is meant to be applied to several situations in real life. I see the story as an allegory of the various “contracts” or “trade-offs” we experience in life. We sacrifice one thing so we can enjoy another thing, and we have to decide ourselves if the sacrifice, or trade-off, is worth the outcome.

I personally did not like the way the author provides descriptions in the short story. The author gives half-descriptions and then retracts them, and I feel as if the descriptions have no point to the story. The author could have cut the story well short, without giving meaningless descriptors. I also could not suspend my disbelief of the author’s description of the citizens having “complex lives” in the utopia if everything in their lives is well taken care of and they have nothing to worry about. The author has shown to have disdain towards pain and suffering (Le Guin, 3), when both are facts of life, and people need to experience both for intellectual and spiritual growth.

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