Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Originally Published in the Doubleday anthology New Dimensions #3 (1973) and in Le Guin’s collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975)
Errata: Winner of the 1974 Hugo Award for Best Short Story
This will only touch on one small aspect of the short story (because I don’t want to write an essay on it, but rather start a discussion).
Perhaps what I like most about short stories is that there is a certain amount of freedom with standard storytelling conventions that aren’t typically found in longer works. In this piece, Le Guin exercises that freedom by presenting, among other things, a situation as opposed to a more formal plot. The plot is there, to be sure, but what happens, the events that unfold, are of secondary importance to the circumstances which propel them and, in the end, remain incomplete as the situation overwhelms them.
When asked what the story is about, most often the responses revolve around the suffering child locked away in the basement. But that is all description and backstory. The description of the child and its impact/influence on Omelas is what consumes the action of the story, and eventually the plot, the action, is lost without being able to play itself out.
The action I am referring to is, of course, the beginning of the “Festival of Summer” and the events that lead up to the horse race, and is introduced in the very first paragraph:
“All the processions wound towards the north side of the city, where on the great water-meadow called the Green Fields boys and girls, naked in the bright air, with mudstained feet and ankles and long, lithe arms, exercised their restive horses before the race.”
The narrator follows the horses all the way to the starting line, describing the town and the people along the way. Slowly this description begins to take precedence as the narrator struggles to make the reader understand the utopian society of Omelas: “Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?” The narrator goes so far as to say that there is little difference between the people of Omelas and “us”:
“…I repeat these were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians. They were not less complex than us…How can I tell you about the people of Omelas?…They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! but I wish I could describe them better. I wish I could convince you.”
This shift ushers in a new tact in which the narrator begins to make suppositions of things that “should” or “could” be the case with the population. We move from the plot and what is known to what the narrator thinks about specific aspects of Omelian society:
“Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids…how about technology? I think that there would be no cars or helicopters…I think that people from up and down the coast have been coming in to Omelas during the last days before the Festival on very fast little trains and double-decked trams…But what else should there be?…I think there out to be beer. What else, what else belongs in the joyous city?”
This new tact the narrator takes runs the risk of casting doubt on the previous descriptions of the city and its people. The concrete facts of the previous description and backstory are replaced by an almost anthropological evaluation of society with reasoning behind each component that is thorough and logical. The narrator covers the “big issues” that society faces even today – technology, drugs, sex, and government. Through it all, the plot, the story of the Festival of Summer and the horse race, are forgotten, only to be ushered back to the forefront with the most abrupt shift in the piece. It’s as if the narrator realizes that focus has been lost, and hurries to catch up to the action not only by shifting back to the plot, but by shifting from past tense to present tense:
“Most of the procession have reached the Green Fields by now. A marvelous smell of cooking goes forth…The faces of small children are amiably sticky…a child of nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd, alone, playing on a wooden flute.”
This shift in tense brings a sense of immediacy with it. This is happening now. The child is playing the flute. People are smiling. The horses rear on the starting line. The narrator brings us to that pivotal moment, the starting of the race that begins the Festival of Summer. But then the narrator rips it all away without ever starting the race:
“Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.”
The final third of the story is all description. The festival is never mentioned again. The plot is lost in the situation. This loss is important, however, as it mirrors the questions that Le Guin is posing within the descriptions, the primary question being: Is the suffering, or loss, of one child acceptable to preserve the Omelian way of life? It’s one of those biggies that dates all the way back to Corinthians: “If one part of the body suffers, all the other parts share its suffering. If one part is praised, all the others share in its happiness.” Is this the case? Or is there a “greater good” that must be considered? Are there truly “acceptable losses”? This becomes an especially pressing question when you take into account when it was written (~1973) and what was going on in our own society.
More questions to consider/discuss. Some I have an idea about, some I still puzzle over:
- Le Guin hints that the horses (and other animals) have developed an advanced intelligence: “…they were vastly excited, the horse being the only animal who has adopted our ceremonies as his own.” Why?
- Who is the narrator? Not from Omelas, as he refers to the people as “they” and lumps himself/herself in with the reader through the use of “us.” How does the narrator know all this, and, considering the supposition and guesswork, why doesn’t the narrator know more?
- What is the connection between the child playing the flute and the child locked away in the basement?
- How long has this been going on? How does the Omelian society “choose” the child that will suffer? What does this kind of extended thinking imply about the people of Omelas?
- What is gained by those who choose to leave Omelas? What effect does it have, if any, on the situation within the city?
Recommended works by Le Guin:
The Earthsea series (beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea)
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Word for World is Forest
There are others (specifically Lavinia and The Lathe of Heaven) which I have yet to read but are multiple award winners that have been on my “To Read” list for years now.
Next up on the rfdc Short Story Club:
July 18: “The Nonesuch” by Brian Lumley