Teaching Ursula Le Guin’s famous, resonant little tale, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (the final word of which I had apparently pronounced incorrectly for years) taught me something in turn: that rigid genre classification sometimes hurts more than it helps. Le Guin’s story asks as much about ethics as it does about how we—and even the author herself—may instinctually define certain works.
“People ask me to predict the Future,” Ray Bradbury wrote in an essay in 1982, “when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it.” According to Theodore Sturgeon, Bradbury had already expressed this sentiment around 1977, though others attributed it to the author of Dune, Frank Herbert. Regardless of who originated the phrase, the start of Bradbury’s essay—which presents a set of highly optimistic technological and societal goals for the world post-1984 (the year, not the novel)—reminded me of something Ursula Le Guin would say a few years later in 1988 about Bradbury and defining science fiction as a genre. “How much do you have to know about science to write science fiction?” Irv Broughton had asked Le Guin. The primary requirement, Le Guin answered, was that “a science fiction writer be interested in science. He may hate it; I know Ray Bradbury hates it. I know he hates technology, and I rather think he hates science. But he’s interested in it.”
Le Guin used similar language in the foreword to her collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, where she described “the rather erratic ‘future history’ scheme which all my science fiction books follow.” In a 2010 talk with Margaret Atwood, Le Guin expanded on defining how science fiction and fantasy connect to the future. For Le Guin (as for Atwood), science fiction was about something that could possibly happen in the future, while fantasy showed something that could never happen at all. When Atwood asked Le Guin about Star Wars—could this happen, in a galaxy far, far away?—Le Guin responded with a vulpine wryness. “There have been really few science fiction movies,” she said. “They have mostly been fantasies, with spaceships.”
I began to think about how Le Guin might define one of her own best-known short tales, the genre-bending “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which I had either tormented or delighted my students with for years by asking them about the tale’s ethical message. (My most memorably awkward classroom moment on morality, however, came not from “Omelas,” but from Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl”; a student proudly and loudly informed me that he would have snatched the eponymous shawl, which kept a secret baby warm and hidden in a Nazi concentration camp, to keep himself warm.) Le Guin’s story imagines the fictional city of Omelas, which initially seems a utopia. But this city’s happy wonders come at a cost. In the bowels of the metropolis, there is a room in which a child is being tortured; the only way Omelas can remain a utopia is if the child suffers, and everyone in Omelas knows it. This is the city’s social contract. However, Le Guin writes, a few people, upon learning of the existence of the tortured child as teenagers, choose to abandon this superficially perfect world, seeking imperfection rather than a “perfection”—if it can be called that—predicated on another’s pain. Certainly, “Omelas” presents a future that, like Bradbury, Le Guin wishes to prevent—yet “Omelas” does not present a plausible future to prevent, but rather an allegory for the present day distilled to its simplest elements: that for us to be happy, someone else must suffer. That we live off distant, perhaps unheard pain even in our mundane moments, for we are all connected, and when one takes, another must give. “I would not deny that utopia may always be based on atrocity—since all privileged lives are based on injustice, that would seem to indicate a possible rule,” Le Guin told the critic Carl Freedman in a 2006 interview. What would it mean, indeed, to walk from such a system? To walk away from our own world?
Le Guin relished this ambiguity. “I think what irritates people about ‘Omelas,’ she told Freedman, “is that except for the door shut on the poor child, all the doors of the story remain open. And people do love closure!”
My students enjoyed this dearth of closure a bit less. Some were dumbfounded by the tale’s cruelty. A few would smirk and say they would keep living in the city because, well, hey, and occasionally an incensed student would berate their grinning classmate for not walking away. This kind of student’s rage often eventually evanesced under the moral complexity: would I really give up an amazing life for one child, But it’s a child being tortured, But, But. In the end, few of them could decide. But nearly all of my students, by the time our class was over, had accepted an additional ambiguity: that Le Guin’s tale seemed to defy genre. The class I first taught “Omelas” in revolved around a term I’ve always found overly simplistic, “magical realism.” I grew up in a Caribbean island in which our myths could seem as seamlessly real as the goats on the sides of the road or the white waterfalls from past centuries that had seen blunderbuss-wielding colonists, and this sense of marvelous reality was palpable (even for an atheist like me) because it was simply part of our societal landscape—all of which the term “magical realism” seemed to suggest made the world I grew up in not really “realistic.” I may not believe the myths, yet because they inhere so deeply in my cultural milieu, I know my home’s “realism” is its own; we must acknowledge, for nuance, that “realism” can feel different in different places. Striking a balance between the class’ focus and my own discomfort with the term, a number of our sessions featured texts that proffered questions about what “magical realism” truly was.
Some of the best fiction and nonfiction alike dissolves genre, but—as a few horror-struck emails on the cusp of their exams revealed—my students often wanted a definite answer that they could, if I were cruel enough to ask it, use to label Le Guin’s piece on their midterms or final exams: a) magical realism or b) fantasy or whatever else one might propose. I empathized with this impulse, but it also made me wonder how we discuss such label-eluding art in the classroom and in criticism.
While Omelas initially seems a well-defined fantastical city, the narrator quickly begins to doubt the reader’s conviction in such a world. “I wish I could convince you,” the narrator opines. “Omelas sounds in my words like a city out of a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time.” The city is too happy to be believed; it is easier to trust somewhere with pain, evil, imperfections. The narrator then makes a striking offer to the reader, breaking all pretenses of conventional fantasy: “Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all.” Suddenly, Omelas has shifted, able to become whatever the reader believes in best, tilting and transmogrifying, at our metafictional command, into various eras and architectures. Loosely like in choose-your-own-adventure books, or as in Luisa Valenzuela’s postmodern marvel, “Cat’s Eye,” the reader gets to decide a part of the story.
The narrator then lists technologies they believe the city would likely have—no helicopters or cars; yes to subways, cures for the common cold, fuel-free light sources—only to return power over the world to the reader: “Or they could have none of that. As you like it.” Omelas is an ophidian, amorphous fictional space. Rather than the clearly defined landscapes and universal rules of somewhere like Middle-earth or Hogwarts or the planet of Gethen, the basic design of Omelas, for all Le Guin’s descriptions of it, remains largely in the reader’s hands. Yet even as we get to imagine its details both big and banausic, we are still, ultimately, controlled by Le Guin’s narrator, like a deity giving partial power to a demigod; after all, Le Guin crafted the terms of our narrative choices. (There’s a vague metaphor in all this about free will.) Still, the story’s primary constant is ethical rather than architectural: that a child be tortured, so everyone else in the city can be happy. How do we even categorize such a story? Is it a story at all?
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” seems genre-fluid, or, perhaps, genre-free, existing in some lovely hinterland at the borders of where fantasy may begin. It looks like fantasy—it’s a fantastical world that doesn’t exist—yet its parameters are barely defined because of the reader’s control. Although Le Guin writes in the foreword to the collection containing “Omelas,” The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, that all its stories are fantasy or sci-fi, she also mentions an intriguing other kind of story collected therein: “psychomyths, more or less surrealistic tales, which share with fantasy the quality of taking place outside any history, outside of time…” A mind-world, a mytho-geography: perhaps this is what “Omelas” is. (Indeed, Le Guin herself, in a preamble before the story, calls it a “psychomyth.”) I love the expansiveness of the word, its Jungian depths. But “Omelas” is also a parable, a philosophical narrative. If fantasy requires a world that cannot be, “Omelas” seems fantasy. Yet it is clearly meant to say more about our reality than whatever form the land of Omelas might take. And “Omelas” is not unique; like another of Le Guin’s parables, “She Unnames Them,” it ultimately seems to exist in a space outside of a rigid genre, forcing us to ask just what the boundaries of those genres, including fantasy, might be. This is one reason I love it: it always seems to escape me when I try to classify it.
Critics like Freedman take this idea a step further, arguing that despite “Le Guin’s immense contributions to science fiction and fantasy…[a] significant number of her works—especially her shorter works—of prose fiction are not precisely fantasy or science fiction.” Freedman compares “Omelas” to “the modern parabolic allegory of the sort invented by Kafka and developed by Borges and others,” and Le Guin herself, in her conversation with Freedman, offhandedly suggested the story is a parable when she proffered that one reason young people may be disturbed by it is that “[a] lot of kids haven’t read parables or fables.” While “Omelas” certainly contains echoes of Kafka and Borges’ fictions, it still feels unique. It is one of relatively few short stories by authors primarily known for sci-fi or fantasy to be frequently anthologized in collections of general fiction, and this may partly stem—aside from a still-extant stigma against both genres—from how difficult it is to categorize Le Guin’s story. And yet, it is the end of “Omelas”—the haunting images of those who leave, where the tale finally, briefly, becomes narrative—that makes the entire story work.
A number of critics have noted, rightly, that Le Guin’s tale bears a striking similarity to a passage in The Brothers Karamazov, in which Dostoevsky presents a theoretical ethical conundrum that reads like a little outline of “Omelas.” However, Le Guin acknowledged the resemblance but not necessarily the direct influence of Dostoevsky’s novel; she claimed that it was only after finishing “Omelas” that she realised the similitude. “I’d simply forgotten he used the idea,” Le Guin noted in the preamble to “Omelas.” Her most overt influence was instead the famous psychologist William James, brother of Henry James, the former of whom the subtitle of her story—“Variations on a Theme by William James”—invokes. Le Guin said she had a “shock of recognition” on reading the following passage in The Moral Philosopher and The Moral Life:
Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a skeptical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?
While Le Guin dedicated the tale to James, the story shouldn’t be read as a simple retelling or remix. “Of course,” she said, “I didn’t read James and sit down and say, Now I’ll write a story about that ‘lost soul.’ It seldom works that simply. I sat down and started a story, just because I felt like it, with nothing but the word ‘Omelas’ in mind.”
That word, famously, came from reading a sign for “Salem, Oregon” backwards. (Contrary to many readers’ expectations, including my own, her fabulous-yet-all-too-real city is pronounced with a stress on the first syllable.) Le Guin averred that her choice of title bears no special significance, and, in a conversation with Hélène Escudié in 2002, Le Guin revealed that “I very seldom do anagrams or puns or directly concealed meanings. There may be an echo in some of the words but I try to avoid those games, those letter games…I don’t like puzzles in rhyme, in fiction.” When Escudié pointed out that she had one in “Omelas,” Le Guin doubled down that the name had no grand significance. “Yes,” she said, “but that was the sound, you see, because I do read signs backwards. I just thought ‘melas, say melas, that’s pretty,’ omelas, because obviously ‘o’ could fit in, ‘homme hélas,’ and so on. It was a pretty word, and then I thought, ‘Well, where is it?’ So,” she finished, “the story began. A story can grow from a word, from the sound of a word…A story can grow out of a meaningless word.” This, of course, is the dull, sublunary truth of so many things in fiction that we might seek a grand authorial plan in, when no such plan existed. Often, the art we love blooms, for no clear reason, in the most mundane of places.
Still, I can’t help but wonder. ‘Homme hélas’ means, literally, ‘man, alas,’ and what more apposite appellation for a world predicated on knowingly hurting a child? Beyond this, there is the curious, serendipitous resonance of the word “Salem.” Oregon’s Salem does not have the exaggeratedly eerie, eldritch connotations of Salem, Massachusetts, which was immortalized in American history (and in an endless stream of paranormal TV shows) due to its notorious witch trials of 1692, but the two Salems may, indeed, be connected: Salem, Massachusetts was named for Jerusalem, as Oregon’s allegedly also was, and Oregon’s may even have been named after Massachusetts’. While this, of course, is a superficial connection, so deep is the cultural significance of the name “Salem” that it is unfortunately difficult not to think of the witch trials when the word appears. And a story title that reverses this name also reverses that resonance; this, symbolically, also removes the idea of witchcraft, which Le Guin’s story also somewhat does, by removing the “magic” of world-building and giving that power to the reader to imagine the world as they wish it. Indeed, Le Guin in a moment both ingenious and impish, wrote in her preamble to “Omelas” that “Salem equals schelomo equals salaam equals Peace”; “peace” certainly is the opposite of what “Salem” tends to conjure up, as well as the opposite of what Omelas really contains beneath its halcyon surface. Of course, all this may be silly and supposititious, reading too much into the title. But what better place to wonder and wander in, after all, then a city backwards, a world turned widdershins?
After all, much as Le Guin doesn’t want to create verbal puzzles, she doesn’t care much for language lacking uncertainty, either. As she—paraphrasing George Steiner—told Sinda Gregory in 1982, language is for lying, rather than simply bluntly stating what something is. “Language is for saying what might be, what we want to be, or what we wish wasn’t,” she said. “Language is for saying what isn’t.” Language, in other words, has a special ability: ambiguity, even untruth, and it is these murky, twilit characteristics that make our words special. A curious little linguistic creation like “Omelas,” with its gong-like, almost ominous sound and its echoes, serendipitously, of another Salem’s history of public torture—what a perfect little word-world to walk in, seeing where this miniature garden of forking paths may not—and also may—take us. And perhaps that’s enough.
While it obviously lacks the world-building complexity of her longer works like The Left Hand of Darkness or The Lathe of Heaven, “Omelas” packs quite a punch for such a short piece. Like much of Borges or Kafka, “Omelas” seems, somehow, to fit something vast into a small space where we, as with Borges’ Aleph, suddenly get to see everything at once. Here is a big piece of the world in a grain of sand—and we must choose whether we, too, would really walk away, whether we can choose to believe in utopias built on someone else’s suffering, as all human utopias perhaps are—and whether, if we would walk away, any true utopia can ever exist at all.
Originally published in August 2017.
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Tin House, Guernica, Slate, New York Magazine’s The Cut, Electric Literature, HuffPost, and elsewhere. Find her at gabriellebellot.com.