By Sarah Hinlicky Wilson
For three decades now I have been reading and re-reading, mulling over and arguing with Ursula K. Le Guin’s extraordinary corpus: the superlative Earthsea quintet and the lesser-known Annals of the Western Shore, the humane science fiction of the Hainish cycle, the retelling of the Aeneid from the perspective of the minor female character Lavinia, and the deliberately post-plot ethnology of Always Coming Home—but nothing has ever hit me quite as hard as her short story from the 1970s entitled “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”
It’s not much of a story, actually. There’s no plot to speak of. It’s a variation on the theme of suffering children, which is offered as a reason in The Brothers Karamazov to disbelieve in God, and more explicitly is a response to William James’s rumination about the “hideous… bargain” of making millions happy at the cost of one lost soul.
The tale begins with a depiction of a place so bright and beautiful it is hard to not to fall in love with it: “the city of Omelas, bright towered by the sea.” There are “old moss-grown gardens” and “avenues of trees,” “merry women carrying their babies” while “the music beat faster, a shimmering of gong and tambourine” during a festival involving horses whose “manes were braided with streamers of silver, gold, and green.”
The anonymous narrator—perhaps the author herself—knows you won’t and can’t believe it. Joy is unconvincing. Happy people are inferred to be simple people. Our bias is to believe that “[o]nly pain is intellectual, only evil interesting.” But she wants you to know that these are “mature, intelligent, passionate” folk. They have no kings, no slaves, no clergy, and they manage quite fine without “the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb.” It is the ideal of human community:
"A boundless and generous contentment, a magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world’s summer: this is what swells in the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life.
Omelas may have no bombs, but now the narrator drops one of her own. There is another facet to Omelas that needs to be told.
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. It has one locked door, and no window.… The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool 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. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner … The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes—the child has no understanding of time or interval—sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually."
The dirty secret of Omelas provokes the horror of recognition. Human happiness, and human wealth even more so, seeks to avoid direct confrontation with all those at whose expense it lives. Perhaps, as human societies go, Omelas is virtuous: after all, it is only one single child who lives in such wretchedness—the greatest good for the greatest number!
The narrator goes on to tell us that everyone in Omelas knows about the child in the dark. Young people are inducted into the secret at the right time. Good people and the progeny of good people that they are, “these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight.” Disgust, anger, and outrage follow. They want to help—but soon realize they can’t. “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.” Who would risk “to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one”?
So, in time, the children and adults alike of Omelas accommodate their consciences to the terrible bargain. They are very sensible about the matter. It’s too late for the child, after all: even if it were released, it would never regain its lost mind, would never trust, would live forever beyond the humanizing touch of others—so the bargain is not just a matter of preserving their own personal comfort but realistically assessing the prospects for the one suffering child.
“Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and the knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children.”
It’s almost enough to lure you in. We are mature, intelligent, compassionate adults too, after all. We know how vast and complex the problems of the world are, how little we can change despite our best intentions, how often our best intentions go awry and generate worse problems yet. Shed the tears, acknowledge the injustice, and carry on as best you can.
“But,” the narrator informs us, “there is one more thing to tell.”
Some of the youth who are confronted with the suffering child do not return home. “Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home.” Such people walk through the city of Omelas, out its beautiful gates, through the surrounding villages, and head toward the mountains, toward the unknown. “They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards 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. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”
And so the story ends.
When I first read it as a teenager, Le Guin’s story struck me as a clarion call to life—a commitment to what I would not have known then, but since have come to identify as the consistent ethic of life. The ethic of life does not admit of selectivity. The punishment of innocent children is bound up with questions of poverty; peace is not peace when it is at someone else’s expense; war and wealth are more intertwined than we like to believe. Ultimately, any ethic that allows someone else to be the scapegoat—the fetus, the poor, the foreigner, take your pick of any other favored scapegoat of history—is a false ethic, a deadly one. It is against life, whosoever’s life it may valorously preserve.
Needless to say, I assumed that the author of this stirring story must see it the same way and apply her own insight consistently. Then, many years later, I started reading her essays.
To say I was shocked to discover that Le Guin was a pro-choice activist is an understatement. It was more like a blow to the gut. How could the woman who wrote “Omelas” turn around and endorse the elimination of the powerless children?
The inconsistency is stunning. In her essay “Moral and Ethical Implications of Family Planning,” for example, Le Guin approvingly quoted author Irene Clarement de Castillejo’s words: “Woman, who is so intimately and profoundly concerned with life, takes death in her stride. For her, to rid herself of an unwanted foetus is as much in accord with nature as for a cat to refuse milk to a weakling kitten. It is man who has evolved principles about the sacredness of life… and women have passionately adopted them as their own. But principles are abstract… Woman’s basic instinct is not concerned with the idea of life, but with the fact of life. The ruthlessness of nature which discards unwanted life is deeply ingrained in her.” Le Guin concluded that “woman’s desire to have children” can be turned into “ethical coercion… bondage, a hideous sentimental trap.” But “if we can get feminine and human morality out from under the yoke of a dead ethic, then maybe we’ll begin to get somewhere on the road that leads to survival.” I wonder whose “survival” she had in mind?
This frank acknowledgement of the elimination of unwanted life didn’t sit well with her once she saw it on paper, or so I suspect. She retreated from that kind of moral justification of abortion in her later essays, though not from the justification of abortion itself. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was a personal reason for her position. What is surprising, however, is that her contorted rationale in favor of abortion was, in fact, an argument for life.
Thus, in another essay she recounted—in the genre of a fairy tale, before revealing that she herself was “the princess”—getting pregnant by a “weak, selfish man” in college well before Roe vs. Wade, and her parents’ determination to get their daughter the best abortion money could buy. Upon expressing her worry that she was being cowardly and evading the consequences of her actions, her father replied: “That’s right. You are. That cowardice, dishonesty, evasion, is a lesser sin than the crass irresponsibility of sacrificing your training, your talent, and the children you will want to have, in order to have one nobody wants to have.” Some years afterwards, she married and “had three desired and beloved children, none of whom would have been born if her first pregnancy had gone to term.” Her conclusion: “If any birth is better than no birth, and more births are better than fewer births, as the ‘Right-to-Life’ people insist, then they should approve of my abortion, which resulted in three babies instead of one.” The unwanted child had to be sacrificed—scapegoated—to make room for the other three.
Years later she was still telling the story this way. Had she not had the abortion, she wrote, “…I would have borne a child for them, for the anti-abortion people, the authorities, the theorists, the fundamentalists; I would have borne a child for them, their child. But I would not have borne my own first child, or second child, or third child. My children. The life of that fetus would have prevented, would have aborted, three other fetuses, or children, or lives, or whatever your choose to call them… If I had not broken the law and aborted that life nobody wanted, [my three children] would have been aborted by a cruel, bigoted, and senseless law.” I can’t help but see the first aborted child on the floor of that dank basement in Omelas. Why didn’t she?
It isn’t the simple fact that Le Guin supported abortion rights that astounds me. It’s that her entire body of work is devoted to critically reimagining human society in alternate ways—from the anarchic, ambiguous utopia The Dispossessed depicting a society in which all things are held in common, to tales of Orsinian revolution, to the alternately-gendered Left Hand of Darkness, to the powerful critiques of the handling of power in her fantasy novels, to the anti-war tirade of The Word for World Is Forest. Why in this case could she not, would she not, imagine another way? Why did her unborn child retain its unalterable position as the enemy of its mother’s education and the lives of its younger siblings? Why were no alternate social arrangements on Le Guin’s horizon—adoption, social and financial support for mothers, husbands wise and compassionate enough to raise the children of other men?
I don’t know, in her case, and since her death at the age of eighty-eight in early 2018, it’s too late to ask. I wish I had. She alludes not infrequently to the apparent desire of “Right-to-Lifers” to control women’s bodies and sexuality: she evidently could not fathom any other reason for their ethical stance, and I’m afraid that in some cases, at least, she had reason for her suspicion.
But all this reveals to me why we remain so stuck, culturally and legally, over this issue. It’s because none of us is consistently pro-life. Instead we self-select into mutually hostile groups. Thus, for example, we oppose abortion but defend semi-automatic weapons. We defend unwanted minorities but send unwanted fetuses to the knife. We decry the holocaust of girl babies in sex-selective abortion but refuse to address the crisis of sexual assault and the feminization of poverty. We talk tolerance and then systematically shame and silence those who think differently. We refuse to recognize that capital punishment and abortion, matters of war and matters of undocumented immigrants, sexual assault and endemic poverty, crises of race and crises of family are all at root the same thing—a deep-seated contempt for whatever form of life inconveniences us. Whether we stand at the left, right, or center, we are all contented dwellers in Omelas, pretending that we don’t live at the expense of other lives. Even those who see as penetratingly into human souls and societies as Le Guin fall prey to this self-delusion.
What great fiction like Le Guin’s does—counter-intuitively—is to present to our imaginations real persons in all their particularity, complexity, and contradictions. And yet the more I observe our contemporary culture, the more I suspect that what it fears above all is real persons. It wants anything but that face-to-face encounter, that entanglement with the infinite complexity of an actual human soul animating a particular human body. No dependent, inconvenient fetuses; no struggling, nonproductive sufferers of mental illness; no costly old age; no wounds from a hard life; no unresolved hungers; no complicated emotions; no migrants from troubled societies; no elderly taking their time toward death, just cyborg duplicates that fit better on an assembly line and curated social media profiles that can be better summarized in 140 characters than in a poem or a play.
But if we took a hard look at our person-avoidant habits, and if we invited even those with whom we most disagree to look with us, we might start to see clearly how deeply entailed in one another are positions usually thought to be opposed. There is no separating the issue of abortion from poverty, and yet somehow our two political parties and their adherents claim one end of the spectrum or the other and refuse to see the connection between the two. One can signal noblesse oblige enlightenment on immigrants and race without noticing how one’s open-mindedness is premised on the comforts of financial security built on unjust zoning laws and non-transparency in industrial production. One can defend American military intervention for the sake of freedom while remaining strangely oblivious to the wholesale destruction it has wrought on our own Americans in the form of moral and physical injury and debilitating ptsd, to say nothing of what it has done to destroy lives and freedoms in occupied territory. One can speak eloquently of neurodiversity and advocate for more sensitive educational practices, yet in the same breath condone the abortion of Down Syndrome fetuses. And on it goes.
Ursula Le Guin did not intend to make a pro-life advocate out of me. She did not articulate or advance a consistent life ethic in any public or formal way. But I ascribe credit to her all the same for prodding me to the outskirts of Omelas. I like to think that, in her own way, she spent her many productive decades as a writer gazing at the mountains beyond the city gates of Omelas, hoping eventually to find her way there. May we all find our way someday to that place of life that even so great a soul as Le Guin could not imagine.
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is a writer, a theologian, and a pastor at Tokyo Lutheran Church. Read more of her work at www.sarahhinlickywilson.com.
Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, vol. 2 (London: Granada, 1978), 112–120.
Ursula K. Le Guin, “Moral and Ethical Implications of Family Planning,” in Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (New York: Grove, 1989), 19.
Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Princess,” in Dancing at the Edge of the World, 78.
Ursula K. Le Guin, “What It Was Like,” in Words Are My Matter: Writing about Life and Books 2000–2016