Ursula LeGuin died today. Though I’ve seen her read her works and speak several times, I met her only once, in 1988. For a few years back then, the What’s Happenin’ weekly paper, now the Eugene Weekly, sponsored a writing contest for poetry and fiction, which was published as an insert to the paper, called “Pacifica”. That year LeGuin was the poetry judge for the contest, and she picked my poem, “History” as one of the two poetry winners. (My friend Madrona Holden was the other poetry winner that year.) As part of the publication event, a reading was held at the Hult Center, with the winners and judges all reading together in the Soreng Theatre. What an honor, fresh out of graduate school, to get to share the stage with a writer like LeGuin!
After the reading, which took place in the afternoon as part of the Eugene Celebration festivities downtown, the What’s Happenin’ folks put on a picnic in a pavilion up in Hendricks Park. I managed to find a few minutes to chat with LeGuin, even with the many fans crowding around her. She said she liked my poem for its ambitious themes, and for its naming of the trees. I told her how much I admired her poetry and her science fiction. I mentioned her little story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, and I sort of shyly asked what it means to “walk away” in that story. She didn’t really answer except to grin a little, say it was a pretty open idea.
I started my teaching career at Lane that fall, and over the years I taught LeGuin’s work many times in my literature and writing classes. Her novel The Left Hand of Darkness was a centerpiece every time I taught science fiction. I used her novel The Word for World is Forest in Nature Literature. But it was the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away…” that I taught most often. I taught it in the sci-fi class, but I also used it in American Lit, in short story classes, and in composition classes.
This little classic— a parable really, more than a story— poses one of the most profound philosophical questions of any piece of literature I know. It offers an almost utopia, a perfect society in which everyone is happy and provided for, a comfortable, prosperous world, ideal except for one flaw. In a basement somewhere is a child who must be tortured constantly, in order that everything else should be perfect. One child in torment, in exchange for the happiness of the rest. All the people of the society know and accept, albeit with some sadness, this sad truth. Their joy comes at the cost of that child’s suffering. And so the world goes on. But, LeGuin’s story tells us, there are those who turn their backs on that society, who won’t accept that cost. They are the ones who walk away from Omelas.
I don’t remember when I first read the story. Back in the ‘70s, I guess. It seems like I’ve known it forever. And that image of the tormented child in the basement has haunted me since. LeGuin’s story, perhaps as much as any other single thing, explains my years of retreat into the off-grid wilds of the Oregon coast range. You see, I tried in my own way— though as with so many things I failed— I tried to be one of those who walk away from Omelas.
To me, that story perfectly describes our own society, not some distant possible world. We live in Omelas which, as LeGuin explained to me that day in the park, is an anagram for Salem O, the capital of Oregon, an any-town, an every-town. In America, we live in that society where each moment of prosperity we enjoy is gained at the cost of the torture and death of another. My sweet morning coffee is exchanged for the death of Somali children in our latest drone strike. Your diamond was dug up by a near-slave struggling under the economic chains of poverty. Your lovely sushi requires the extinction of the right whale. I’m sorry to even say this. I know it’s impolite to point it out. We don’t like to think about it, for obvious reasons. But LeGuin didn’t ever seem especially interested in politeness. LeGuin’s story is unflinching that way, as she was throughout her life, as she is throughout her literature.
My students would usually understand this metaphor after a bit of discussion. They didn’t like it; it made them feel uncomfortable, guilty, defensive. “But we didn’t choose it,” they’d say, and I’d point out that neither did the citizens of Omelas. But they knew it was true, even if they forgot it most of the time. And, by accepting it, they also became guilty. Most of the students would shrug at that point, as we all do. “But how can we walk away?” one or two of them would ask. “Where can we go?” How and where, indeed? Perhaps, in Bill McKibben’s phrase, “there is no away.”
I’m looking forward to a renewed interest in LeGuin’s work, which often follows a great author’s death. I expect there will be discussion of many of her powerful novels, her feminist and ecological themes. I’m going to have to dig into some of her novels I haven’t read yet. I love her work.
But I imagine this little story, so difficult and deep, won’t get much mention. So I wanted to bring it to you all’s attention. It’s only a couple pages long, and you can find it online. Here’s its ending paragraph in the heart-making words of Ursula K. LeGuin, who has walked away.
“At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. 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. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. 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.”