Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

"The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" By Ursula K. Le Guin

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I remembered really liking Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” in college, so I put it on the syllabus this semester sort of on a whim. I’m really glad I did. Not only was it a fantastic story to use as an introduction to allegory — a concept that in my experience students never really understand and almost universally dislike, but not this year — but its message is both simple to convey and extremely disconcerting for students when the lightbulb suddenly goes on.

Omelas is a fairy tale city; a paradise. But this paradise comes at a cost: for the entire city to be filled with happiness and unending joy, one small child must be endlessly tortured in its basement. One child suffers horribly so that the rest may live in safety, joy, and peace.

Everyone in Omelas knows that this is the deal — and except for the vanishingly small number of people who leave the city, everyone in Omelas is able to come to terms with and accept this bargain.

Both my classes rejected Omelas, violently. Both classes, to a student, felt that this was, on its face, an extremely immoral state of affairs, no matter how many people are happy in the city, if the cost is misery for someone else. No matter how good Omelas is, they felt, it’s not worth the price.

And both classes, again to a student, had no tolerance for the rationalizations and excuses the Omelasians come up with to justify their society’s basic immorality.

And so it was astounding and extremely gratifying for me to see the shock of recognition in their faces when I wrote the words Salem, Oregon on the board and asked them to think about the way life in Omelas is like life here in America, a marvel of technological magic and democratic freedom unlike any the world has ever known — in short, the most prosperous nation ever to exist on the face of the earth.

This story asks: Who is the child in our basement? Who toils and suffers so that we can live in unprecedented comfort?

This story asks: What is the price of our happy lives, and who pays it?

It’s not easy to get students to see their own reflection in a story like this. But Le Guin got the job done handily.

I highly recommended this story for your Intro to Lit and Intro to Narrative classes. Give it a shot.

Written by gerrycanavan

October 15, 2004 at 5:18 pm

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