Founded on the Shambles
A look at Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas", by Paul Kincaid
In July 1515, Thomas More took a break from trade negotiations in Bruges to visit his friend Peter Gilles in Antwerp. It was there, by his account, that he was introduced to the traveller Raphael Hythloday and learned about the South American realm founded by King Utopus. Responding to More's questioning, Hythloday was scathing about the state of Britain and described in loving detail all the perfections that made life in Utopia so good. More, a trained lawyer, was forensic in his questioning, but there was one thing that, curiously, he never asked. So it is that we shall never know the most intriguing thing about Utopia: why did Hythloday leave it?
This is such an intriguing question because it is so little asked. Time and again in the five centuries since More introduced us to the idea of Utopia, travellers have bounced back with news about one version or other of this perfect place. Details vary, the perfections are chosen depending upon the particular political, moral, social, religious or scientific bent of the author, but the general tenor is the same: here, things are awful; there, things are wonderful. Yet none have thought to tell us, if such is the case, why anyone in their right mind would ever want to leave Utopia and return to our imperfections with this news.
We are used to seeing the faults in our own society, we have become good at describing them. Dickens was far from the only author to build an entire career on what we might call the dystopic visions he saw around him every day. Against this, I suppose, we need the idea of perfection as a contrast, an ideal, a target towards which we might strive. In such circumstances we may not look too closely at what constitutes that ideal, so it took a long time to come up with the notion that perfection might have its own faults. It was William James, psychologist and philosopher, who wrote in his most important book, Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), that 'our civilisation is founded on the shambles'. That is 'shambles' in the old sense of slaughterhouse. Seventy years later, in a story subtitled 'Variations on a Theme by William James', Ursula K. Le Guin finally gave an answer to the question Thomas More had not asked.
A little context by way of digression. 1973 was an extraordinary year in American science fiction. The genre was enjoying something of a boom. For the first time ever, more stories appeared in original anthologies than in the magazines. And what stories they were. A taste of the year can be found in Terry Carr's Best of the Year anthology covering 1973, an anthology which brings together more 'classics' of the genre, I think, than any similar anthology before or since. The 11 stories in the volume include Bester's 'Something Up There Likes Me', Lafferty's 'The World as Will and Wallpaper', Vance's 'Rumfuddle', Ellison's 'The Deathbird', McIntyre's 'Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand', Wolfe's 'The Death of Doctor Island', Farmer's 'Sketches Among the Ruins of my Mind' and Tiptree's 'The Women Men Don't See'. Most if not all of these are still read, still rated, but perhaps only the Tiptree has the same resonance, the same vibrant immediacy, as Le Guin's short fable.
'The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas' breaks every rule. There are no named characters, indeed no real characters at all. There is no story, at least in the sense that we follow characters through a series of incidents and events towards a climax. There are only two lines of dialogue, unconnected to each other, in the entire piece. There isn't even much in the way of authorial certainty: 'I do not know the rules and laws of their society' (274) she confesses at one point, and at another, having listed some of their technologies, she retreats: 'Or they could have none of that: it doesn't matter. As you like it' (275). And the very subject of the story, that which gives it its title, appears only in the very last paragraph.
We don't read 'The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas' because of these storytelling quirks, but because these storytelling quirks throw the theme of the story so much into focus. Omelas is Utopia, that is the first thing we must understand. Not More's Utopia, though a modern-day Hythloday might well recognise the place, or Bacon's Atlantis, or any of the utopias by Henry Neville, William Morris, H.G. Wells or the like. Rather, Omelas is all of these and none; it is our personal, private utopia. Which is why Le Guin takes such trouble constructing it to our tastes and whims: 'Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all' (275). And again, 'But even granted trains, I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don't hesitate' (276). Omelas is flexible, variable, an every-Utopia for Everyman. Le Guin addresses her audience as Hythloday addresses More, relaxed and confident, happy to help us see this Utopia in any way that will seem most utopian to us.
It is, to some extent, a place out of a fairy tale, because all our notions of utopia grow to some extent from faerie. The city is described only in the most general terms: 'In the streets between houses with red roofs and painted walls, between old moss-grown gardens and under avenues of trees, past great parks and public buildings, processions moved' (273). This is a bucolic neverland upon which we can add whichever of our own fancies will turn it into our own ideal state: Le Guin suggests the absence of kings and temples, the presence of public sex and (remember this was written at the end of the 1960s) recreational drugs. Certain technologies are denied: 'I think that there would be no cars or helicopters' (275), perhaps because they have military or oppressive overtones (she does not say); while others are possible: 'they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvellous devices not yet invented here, floating light sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold' (275). All of this is peripheral to the main point, that the people of Omelas are happy. 'How can I tell you about the people of Omelas? They were not naïve and happy children – though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle!' (275)
Utopia is a strange place upon which a succession of authors have imposed a succession of notions. Most have seen a better society as achievable only through the imposition of strict order, as for instance in Wells's A Modern Utopia (1905) or its dystopian counterpart We (1924) by Yevgeny Zamyatin; though others have imagined a functional anarchy, as in William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890) or Samuel R. Delany's Triton (1976). Since More himself was a churchman, his own Utopia, and that of most of his successors, such as Tommaso Campanella's The City of the Sun (1602-23), were based on notions of strict religious observance; but as utopian thought developed into a political philosophy, most notably in the work of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, it became more usual to present Utopia as an atheist, or at least areligious, foundation. And if Morris presented Utopia as a pastoral idyll, the majority of writers have preferred to present the ideal state as the product of advanced science, whether it's the precursor of the Royal Society in Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1627) or the extension of behaviourist psychology in B.F. Skinner's Walden Two (1948). Utopian writers have, in other words, chosen any number of different routes, whether living in harmony with Nature in W.H. Hudson's A Crystal Age (1887) or in harmony with the opposite sex in Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), but each is directed in its way towards the one end: our happiness.
Le Guin, in contrast, ignores the process of utopia (what change to imperfect humanity would achieve perfection?) in favour of the end result (happiness); in other words this is not a story about how to achieve utopia, but about what utopia means. And she is very clear about what constitutes happiness: 'One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt' (276). She lies.
Of course Utopia is a state we may yearn for, but we don't really believe in it. We are too sophisticated for that, and the idea that some inspired social system has been put in place which allows imperfect humanity to live a perfect life is just too simplistic a notion for us to take. Le Guin recognises this, comes back to it repeatedly as she stresses: 'They were not simple folk, you see, though they were happy' (274). But in the end, and this is the crux of the matter, she addresses it directly: 'Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.' (277) At this moment the major chord modulates to a minor key, the palette of lights and colour is swapped for one of darks and shadow. What we see now is a dim, dank little cellar room deep below the city, not a prison cell but a broom closet, yet it is in this lightless and frightening room that a child is imprisoned. 'It might be a boy or a girl. It looks about six but actually is nearly ten' (278). We never know why this particular child is held here, abused, never spoken to, never seeing the daylight, but we know why some such child has to be here:
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. (278-9)
This child, then, is the shambles upon which the civilisation of Omelas is built. And this, somehow, endorses their happiness: 'Theirs is not vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science' (280). The child is an emotive symbol, what it represents is that the happiness of the many, even in Utopia, must be built upon the misery of the few. There is a philosophical issue here: the founders of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, argued that a moral society is built upon the greatest good for the greatest number. Among academic philosophers that theory of morality was quickly replaced by other, more complex and subtle theories. Outside academia, however, and particularly during the hedonistic sixties, that simple utilitarian prescription enjoyed a popular vogue. Le Guin here presents us with the other side of the equation: how do you weigh the undeniable happiness of everyone else against the 'abominable misery' of just one?
Le Guin does not directly address the issue of utilitarianism, but it is the calculation which clearly underpins the final anti-utopian thrust of this excellent story. She does, however, address it obliquely: '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: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed' (279). Guilt is the random factor which throws the smooth calculation of utilitarianism off rail. Most of us are able to keep guilt away by temporizing: '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' (279). But guilt is within the city walls, and some do not push the knowledge of the child away: 'Each alone, they go west or north, toward the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back' (280).
If the sum of utilitarianism does not add up, if the equation does not balance, then we (and it is always reassuring to imagine that we would be among those who walk away from Omelas) cannot accept the happiness that ensues. But the question remains: where do they go? Le Guin leaves it mysterious: 'The place they go toward 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' (280). There is the implication that they head towards yet another utopia, a different model of perfection. But I suspect that what Le Guin is really suggesting here is that they are heading to a place that we do not imagine because it is all around us, a place of relative not absolute moral values, of good and bad in approximate balance and liable to change position at any moment, a place that might become utopian if we sincerely wished, but probably won't.
From Raphael Hythloday to the ones who walk away from Omelas, they return with news of utopia because utopia is not really a place you would want to stay.
Ursula K. Le Guin, 'The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas' (1973) in The Best Science Fiction of the Year #3 edited by Terry Carr, New York, Ballantine Books, 1974, pp273-280.
This article first appeared in Vector 249. Back issues of Vector are available from