Ursula Le Guin’s, The Ones Who Walk Way From Omelas, is a work that depicts suffering through the disturbing images of the universal figure illustrated as the “it” child: “It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes…it is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores as it sits in its own excrement continually” (Le Guin 3). While all of the story’s other elements can be used to comprehend the story’s ideas, none can be used more effectively than the story’s thematization of illusion to elucidate the stories’ lack of fundamental ethical principles. It is through the author’s use of illusion, dehumanization of the “it” child, and city’s capitalistic behaviors that calls on the reader to mull over Le Guin’s central themes of illusion to assert the issues of morality illustrated in an unbalanced celestial city that does not consider the source of their happiness.
Le Guin details a world that is rather extraordinary as there is no death or pain and everyone seems content with themselves citing the city at first to be “joyous” and filled with “bright air” (Le Guin 1). But it is within this same context that Le Guin exposes the illusion of this euphoriant world that sets the tone for the cities moral code by slowly introducing to its readers the cities acceptance of their evils:
“They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their relationships, 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” (Le Guin 3).
Following the description of the charming city of Omelas in the first half of the story, Le Guin ventures towards the awareness of illusions by asking its readers a direct question, “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing” (Le Guin 3). Le Guin underscores the notion of the city’s happiness as an illusion, based on the “just discrimination” that refers to the “it” child hidden away in solitude (hidden as, away from the public’s view, but not hidden in the sense that it is kept secret—the public is well aware that “it” exists) (Le Guin 2). The illusion is concentrated on one human being’s suffering, a human that is very much present in the city’s existence but remains hidden to make the perception of happiness real to them erasing any sense of self-reproach as further suggested in this line, “One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is the sense of guilt (Le Guin 2).
Dehumanizing our central figure heightens the story’s emphasis on the unreality, an illusion that reinforces the imbalance of Omelas favoring the city’s greater population while dishonoring the “it” figure, “—sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come and kick the child to make it stand up” (Le Guin 3). This attains to Le Guin’s usage of illusion as its central theme by depicting the child to be something of “other” or “unlike them,” to further illustrate Omelas’ unethical plateau. The child referred to as an object, an “it,” dehumanizes the figure and announces that the community is neither shocked or surprised to acknowledge their own affiliation to the figure. Interestingly enough, the identity of the “it” child is also marred by the narration, “In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten’ (Le Guin 3). In this way, Le Guin’s theme of illusion is actively demonstrated by the oppressed and undefined identity of this “it” child.
As a consequence, the city demonstrates a capitalistic nature by accepting the existence of the “it child” as Omelas admits the child’s suffering is responsible for “the nobility of their architecture and the poignancy of their music,” as a thing that must be permanently maintained (Le Guin 4). Many of us live in a society where cheaper goods are available to us at the expense of an exploited employee working in a country where the corruption or misuse of labor allows for such luxuries are made for the comfort of others, for us. The idea of exploitation is mirrored here; in order for Omelas to remain successful in its euphoric state, there must be an opposing contrast of exploitation, in this case, the “it” child as justification. The idea of a slave-like figure, being that of the “it” child also contends to the notion of Omelas as capitalist. But, Le Guin presents Omelas as a utopia, “like a city in a fairy tale” to later contrast the illusion behind it (Le Guin 2). The sense of freedom remains a false sense of illusion, bound by the consumerists of Omelas. Le Guin’s work reveals that everyone’s happiness in Omelas depends on the abuse and mistreatment of a child, thus emphasizing the capitalist nature of the city and how it’s role in attaining its fantasy world relies on the degeneration of one child. Most know the child is there and choose to remain part of the exploitation in order to salvage their own children from the same miseries as the ones they witness upon the “it.”
There are, however, a few secondary characters mentioned that do in fact choose to leave the city once they have encountered the “it” child. We can assume that these are the few who realize a disturbing epiphany; a certain loss of innocence that is stronger than the illusion in which they have existed in. Perhaps Le Guin is attempting to explain that, because we know suffering exists, we ought to take part in our own happiness for existence itself is suffering. In other words, we must participate in the great lie. Because in the end as Le Guin wrote it, “happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive…those are the terms” (2, 4).
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Wind’s Twelve Quarters : Short Stories . 1st Perennial Library edition., Perennial Library, 1987.