The Trouble Is

by Michael Johnathan McDonald


Ursula K. Le Guin in her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” gives us a psychomyth, with the central idea of a martyr, and lets us decide what the end of the story should be. She leads off taking us through a beautifully constructed utopian society, called Omelas, asking periodically, if we agree or disagree with her construction of that society. At first, Le Guin paints Omelians in a light that makes us feel this society occupies a fairytale city of noble knights, of naked playing children, and of street performers. The citizens are happy and joyous, rejoicing in the pristine eloquence of the city they created. They have no enemies, no military, no crime, and no guilt. A child appears half way into the story. This child has a prominent role to play in this society. The child is a martyr and the child is necessary for Omelas’s economy, happiness, and existence. We can almost place a religious type figure like Jesus Christ in place of the child in this story. This single child suffers for the benefit of the whole. This is similar to Christ’s suffering on the cross for all of our sins. In order for us to understand the story, we must delve deeply into Le Guin's symbolism of the martyr child and discover what exactly she is suggesting to us.

The symbolisms of “light images,” make up the first half of the story. Words like “summer,” “joy,” “happiness” and “brilliance,“ all represent a sort of awakening or birth, like the first minuets of the sun rising over the horizon or a new baby being born. The symbolism of “dark images” makes up the second half of the story. Words like “darkness, “ “night,” “sorrow,“ “fear” and “weep” represent sort of a somberness like feeling one gets after seeing the setting sun or hearing of a death in the family. With the contrast of symbolism placed so well at the half way mark, then this can be viewed symbolically as day and night or death and resurrection.

If we want to make any sense out of the piece we have to make up our own interpretation of what this child might represent. Christianity comes to mind. Le Guin doesn’t say what the child represents. It’s up to us to place the child into the story if we want to. "It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children," and the child’s room contains two mops and a bucket, which possibly indicates two mops which could make up a cross and the bucket which could be the holy grail (406). The child is “afraid of the mops.” The narrator says that the child finds the mops “[…] horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still there” (406). Many depictions of Jesus on the cross in films have that famous scene where he doubts his destiny, and closes his eyes and questions his higher purpose. The child knows the mops represent his higher purpose and the mops will not go away even when the child closes his eyes. Similarly, Jesus while on the cross had guards watching over him so he could not escape. The child is kept locked in his tool room and is not aloud to leave by the ones watching over him. In addition, the room in which the child must remain is “[…] about three paces long and two paces wide” (406). The word “paces,” an old measurement term, used in the Bible, describe the room. In addition, the cross has a short side and a long side to its structure. Symbolically, Le Guin makes the child’s room one side longer than the other.

This martyr child produces the gifts of greatness for this city. Le Guin points us in that direction when she says, “It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science” (407). A martyr story inspires us. Martyr stories sometimes inspire us to reach even greater heights than we think possible.

The details, which are hazy, as to why the child is kept locked up forever are given to the reader when the remarkable statement which follows: “[...]in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed” (407). This remarkable acknowledgment clearly shows the child is directly connected economically to the society. We can recognize this in context that large religious institutions make us think of extreme wealth. For instance, the Catholic Church is one of the wealthiest institutions in history. Le Guin gives us some further clues in the opening two paragraphs that this society is wealthy.

This city is rich. She tells us that the people of Olemas live in “[…] comfort, luxury, exuberance, etc […]” (404). Le Guin confuses the reader saying “Or they could have none of that: it doesn’t matter” (404). Yet it does matter that we get a sense that the citizens of Olemas are financially well off. Here, Le Guin gives the reader some hints. The horse’s manes that are braided for the “Festival of Summer” have streamers the colors of silver, gold and green. These all are the colors one thinks about when one visualizes colors of money. The Eighteen mountain peaks that surround the city of Olemas burn under the sunlight and sky with “white-gold“, a reference to expensive semi-precious metal sold at jewelry stores (403). Additionally, in numerology, the number eighteen is the number for prosperity and wealth. These little hints and many others take us on a journey to find out how this analogy of the child makes this society wealthy. The martyr of Omelas is clearly seen if one participates in the story and try’s to place the child’s significance to a real life situation.

Jesus was sacrificed to take away the sins of many people. Guilt is associated with sin. Taking away sins means freeing us of our guilty past. In this, we can compare the guiltless feelings Omelains live by choosing to accept the child as a martyr. This contrasts the ones who walk away from Omelas who cannot extinguish their guilt. Le Guin tells us “One thing I know there is none in Omelas is guilt” (405). Omelaians accept that the child suffered for their sins and now are free of guilt. “to throw away the happiness of thousands for a chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed” (407). In this statement, Le Guin tells us the Omelians understand the need for this child as the savior. “It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence […]” Omelians can be guilt free (407). Christ suffered for the sins of everyone who accepts him as the savior. Through his suffering, you are set free from guilt. The ones who stay accept the child - they accept the martyr.

The ones who walk away do not accept the martyr. Omelians lead a procession to the place they celebrate the “Festival of Summer.” This starts out at the city. This is their spiritual center and the place of the crucifixion. Le Guin tells us the child is locked up under one of the “[…] buildings of Omelas” (406). This means Omelas is Jerusalem, because the cross and the holy grail reside in this place. Then the procession proceeds to a place called the Green Fields which is north of the city. Gethsemane, the place where Jesus was arrested, is north of Jerusalem. The child “[…] who has not always lived in the tool room” was once free like Jesus (406). Therefore, he or she must have been captured like Jesus. In Jesus’ case, this was the Garden of Gethsemane. For the child case it was the Green Fields. The procession is equivalent to a religious pilgrimage. Many including the Pope and world peace groups have taken these pilgrimages to celebrate the capture and crucifixion of Jesus. In Christianity, the people view this sojourn not with sadness, but with joy. This is a day to celebrate. The suffering of the one has brought the many joy and happiness. In addition, Le Guin tells us that people come from all around to celebrate the “Festival of Summer.” This is symbolic in that every year people from all around the world descend on Jerusalem to celebrate Easter. In the last paragraph, the word walk appears six times and is referenced another time. Many regard the number seven as the most spiritual number. The ones who walk away from Omelas now pass through this same field, but in darkness. This is symbolic of the Christian theme “dark night of the soul.”

The psychology of snake in the grass, a reference to the devil in the opening chapters of the Old Testament, is portrayed similarly in rather brilliant psychomyth style. Le Guin taps into all our dark reaches of the psyche with lines like, “[...] a refusal to admit banality of evil," "terrible boredom of [intellectual] pain […],” frightening concepts of “[...] only evil interesting" and “[...] considering happiness as something rather stupid" (404). These words and points seem convoluted and garbled at first, until we picture the snake in the Garden of Eden. I get a sense of a civilization who distains responsibility and distains accountability. The trouble is do we really need this martyr? Le Guin poses these concepts to us symbolically. We must question why. Why is a person suffering necessary for our happiness? Le Guin clearly does not state Omelians are trying to better the child's situation. How can Omelians say they have a sense of "victory," "compassion" and "courage", when they know a single child lives in misery at their hands (405-7)? Le Guin is trying to tell us we must take responsibility for our society. Help those who are helpless. In essence, slay the snake which will exterminate the martyr.

There are no character developments. The child’s true purpose is never disclosed. And the antithesis of the ‘greatest good’ of Utilitarianism is one group or a single person must be a ‘martyr’ for the benefit of others. Contradictions are scattered all over like a jigsaw puzzle out of the box. Le Guin hides her message well. The contradictions in this story almost reach the level of “Aldous Leonard Huxley,” the king of contrasts himself. Both wrote on Utopia-like societies. However, Le Guin representation is less fully developed, possibly due to Huxley’s breadth of work on the subject. This is a most difficult subject. Yet, Le Guin makes up for this by showing us in a few places how well she understood this dichotomy of one being sacrificed for the good of the whole. Her point was that we are supposed to get angry that no one in this society tries to make the child’s circumstances better – or fights to free this child. We really do not need a martyr. This is her hidden suggestion to us. She sums this up beautifully, at the end of the story, by first, telling us that “I cannot describe it at all” which is her feelings about no one helping the child. Second, by pointing out that the ones who walk away from Omelas are just as guilty as the ones who stay. “They leave Omelas, they walk away into the darkness, and they do not come back” (407).

Work Cited:

Le Guin, Ursula K. “The ones who walked away from Omelas”

in Rackham, Jeff, and Olivia Bertagnolli. "From Sight to Insight," 7th edition. Boston: Thomson-Heinle, (2003): 403-407.

July, 19, 2003 Eng. 101 (H).

Note, grammar left as originally appeared. ( this essay was written in the TTT format)

Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005 Michael Johnathan McDonald;