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The Language of Guilt and its Avoidance in “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”

Ursula Le Guin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” describes a society in which almost all of the people are consistently happy and live good lives.  The exception is one child who is kept locked in a basement in a state of abject misery as what the rest of the society believes to be a living sacrifice that ensures their own health and happiness.  The difference between the lives of normal children and the life of this sacrificial child is startling.  Le Guin creates this contrast indirectly through her use of imagery and language throughout the tale, finishing the story with its only direct and active addressing of its implicit moral quandary.

Throughout the rest of the story the question of morality is only passively addressed through the language used to describe both the general population and the sacrificial child.  Le Guin repeatedly uses the words “joy” and “happiness” in various forms throughout the story in describing Omelas.  In conjunction with descriptions of the “quiet, merry women” (1) and the children that “dodged in and out” of the procession, “their high calls rising like the swallows’ crossing flights” (1) that make up the population of the town the repetition of words typically used to describe innocent enjoyment create the impression of a nearly utopian town.  Only twice in the story does she use the word “guilt,” and only in the context of denying its existence within the town’s walls. [“Write my essay for me?” Get help here.]

In comparison images of nature and light and objectively positive descriptive words are absent in her discussion of the child that is locked away.  This child is referred to only as “it,” dehumanizing the child.  She points out that “It is feeble-minded” (2), and uses words like “defective” and “imbecile” (2) in describing the child.  The subterranean environment that is the child’s home is “horrible” and its life described as one of “abominable misery” (2).  There is no place in this description for words like “joy” and “happiness” or descriptions of horses manes dancing in the wind.

There is no explanation as to the exact mechanism by which the townspeople’s “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” (2) but it is clear that everyone who resides in the town believes it to be true.  The repetition in this sentence structure lends an urgency and a gravity to this truth.

Most people living in the town do not question the veracity of claims that the child’s misery is essential for their own happiness.  This is evidenced by the fact that they go to see the child in person yet continue to live their lives as they had.  Le Guin’s seemingly straightforward statement in which the word “guilt” comes up a second time does, however, leave the reader beginning to question the nature of the town’s joy and happiness: “to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed” (3).  But isn’t what the residents experience after seeing the child an expression of their inner guilt?  “They may brood over it for weeks or years” (3), as Le Guin points out.  She cites this brooding in the form of accepting their own helplessness and refusing to behave with generosity as “perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives” (3)  The paragraph describing this moral justification is rife with words denoting uncertainty.  They “may” brood.  It is “perhaps” their source of truth.  It’s clear that guilt or at least its spectre has, in fact, already infiltrated the walls of the town.[Need an essay writing service? Find help here.]

After spending many pages describing the splendor of the town and a few making justifications for the elaborate moral gymnastics required of the townsfolk in accepting the imbecile child as an appropriate sacrifice for their own splendor, one paragraph is devoted at the end of the story to actively addressing the less morally reprehensible alternative.  Upon seeing the child, some people do acknowledge their own guilt.  “These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone.  They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates” (3).  The act of leaving Omelas gives the story its name, and yet “[e]ach one goes alone” (3)  It’s clear that although much extravagant language has been used in describing the beauty and splendor of Omelas and its citizens, the most important characters in the story are the few who choose to leave.[Click Essay Writer to order your essay]

The story as a whole, including its structure with much more focus on distraction and entertainment than on addressing the actual moral foundations of the society, can be viewed as an analogy for our own.  Most people in our society are willing to ignore the suffering undergone by others to provide them with creature comforts and an uneasy happiness.  Unfortunately in real life it is not as easy for those who cannot ignore it to simply walk through the gate and leave.

Sources Cited

Le Guin, Ursula. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” The Wind’s Twelve Quarters: Short Stories.

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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