The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

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The ones who walk away from Omelas

When Ursula Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," first published in 1973, was collected two years later in The Wind's Twelve Quarters, Le Guin added an introduction identifying the immediate inspiration for the central image of her story as a passage in William James's "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life." Her debt to James had been indicated by the story's subtitle, "Variations on a theme by William James," but Le Guin reported that she had several times been asked why she had not given credit to Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (Le Guin 275). Her response was that she had not reread Dostoevsky since she was twenty-five, which would have been some eighteen years or so prior to the writing of "Omelas," and had simply forgotten his use of this scapegoat theme. I will summarize the depiction of the suffering child in "Omelas," James, and Dostoevsky; identify a strikingly similar use of the idea in Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, and add to the discussion of the biblical resonances that have been suggested for "Omelas."

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky introduces this idea of universal happiness in exchange for one child's suffering in "Rebellion" (pt. 2, bk. 5, ch. 4) when Ivan challenges Alyosha's religious belief by recounting a litany of human cruelties, particularly those done to children: babies spitted on bayonets or shot while in their mothers' arms, a young man who has become a criminal and murderer as a result of his abusive upbringing, an eight-year old boy who is killed for accidentally hitting a dog with a stone. The list includes a five-year-old girl who is beaten, locked in an outhouse, smeared with excrement, and even forced to eat excrement. Ivan's diatribe returns to this girl in his final challenge to Alyosha:

"Tell me straight out, I call on you--answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears--would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth."

"No, I would not agree," Alyosha said softly.

"And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child, and having accepted it, to remain forever happy?"

"No, I cannot admit it." (245-46)

As in "Omelas," Dostoevsky presents us not with an abstract "lonely soul" but with an abused child. She is beating her breast because she is abasing herself, asking God to help her, which parallels Le Guin's child who, assuming its treatment to be a punishment, promises to be good.

Dostoevsky's formulation poses a religious challenge, however, that differs both from Le Guin's focus on individual choice and cultural values and ...
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