Walking Away from Omelas

Brothers Karamazov, Chapter 35

Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”

“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.

“And can you admit the idea that men for whom you are building it would agree to accept their happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of a little victim? And accepting it would remain happy for ever?”

“No, I can’t admit it. Brother…”

How far will we go for a life of peace and happiness? Dostoevsky raised the challenge and Ursula Le Guin gave it a fictional setting and faces in her short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. It’s a parable of a town where all is light and beauty, a town with a dark secret that everyone knows. Around the age of eight or so, the children of Omelas are told about a child who is locked in a tiny room without a window, who lives in its own filth, and is barely fed. The child is, as far as we know, innocent of any wrong-doing. What the children of Omelas are told is that their own happiness depends on the suffering of this one child.

Almost everyone in Omelas manages to live with the knowledge. Most forget about it entirely. But a few, even as children, can’t accept it. They leave Omelas, walking away from the lights and music toward an unknown world.

The difference between Omelas and our own world is that most of us are never told what suffering goes on elsewhere so that we can enjoy the benefits that being citizens of our entitled world grants us. When we learn about it, we either disbelieve it’s really that bad, or we forget about it as quickly as we can. The child slaves who work in factories, the workers killed in fallen buildings or burned to death in factories with locked doors, the thousands who die, or live in agony after chemical spills. They are the child in the locked room.

We can forget about them, or we can walk away from the society that thrives on their suffering. Everyone has a choice.

 

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