The Paradox of Paradise

Tristan Aja

After the somber conclusion of Ursula K LeGuin’s abstract short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” there are many questions and paradoxes that float about the impossible city of Omelas and its people. Contradictions, surrounding everything including the city’s culture and celebrations, the speaker’s suggestions and their use of language, play an important role in how the text is read. Its intention to portray happiness and humanity are continually undermined in a way that shows the moral paradox facing the citizens of Omelas, as well as the paradox of language as an ultimately futile way to truly communicate ideas. It’s admitted that the speaker themselves cannot hope to encapsulate the happy city, the complex idea they wish to portray. But this doesn’t stop them from trying, and in trying we see how certain customs and tools are arbitrarily preferred as the speaker tries to depict a happy world.

While the storyteller might first appear unsure of themself, or the idea they want to get across, a focus on the ways in which language and its conventions are limited, arbitrary, yet agreed upon constructs may help us get at the reason behind the abstract passages, contradictions, and frequent addressing of the reader. The text makes direct assumptions about what would, or wouldn’t work in a city like Omelas, and includes many subtle discrepancies that play into the ultimate failure of language to get at the essence of an idea. It is because of these conditions of convention and language, and the subjectivity of happiness, that the text ends up clashing with itself repeatedly on the idea of what Omelas is like, which arbitrary aspects are favored, and how language is used in an attempt to describe a happy community.

The most evident contradictions in the text come when the speaker asks us to do some of the imagining directly, even going back on details and aspects of the world described. It’s quite uncommon in storytelling for the author to write, for instance, “Perhaps it would be best if you imagined [Omelas] as your own fancy bids” (LeGuin 2). And by breaking this narrative convention so often the story ends up reinforcing a loose narrative, that chooses mainly to focus on exposition, and whether we believe the author or not, rather than character or plot. Furthermore, it’s considered that convention “gives the text an identity such that it can acquire meanings that are independent of the author’s intentions” (Knapp and Michaels 67). But, partially owing to the fact that narrative conventions are done away with, this text is able to make the author’s intent much clearer, as they encourage the reader’s own imagining of a happy city on the coast in a way that communicates a deeper, more personal understanding of the utopian ideal in which people are still human. Yet conventions must exist, and here they are used in a way that shows the preferred society of the speaker with a new set of contradictions to unravel.

The speaker undermines their own attempt to describe utopia many times within the depictions of the festival celebrations, recreational activities, and the imagined culture of the city. Within the suggestions about the exclusion of temples and clergy, but the inclusion of beer, religion, and horse races, we find that the speaker’s version of a happy community is inspired by self-interests rather than logic. But is this so wrong? In the sense that the text, and even its reader, are not free-thinking, but “culturally constituted by interpretive frameworks or interpretive strategies that our culture makes available to us” (Tompkins 734), the reason for the convention breaking exposition and encouraged open interpretation become a little clearer. Through our own abstraction, and the speaker’s comments, we see how Omelas is itself a construct of cultural frameworks. What’s more is that the idea of cultural frameworks works to highlight the subjective details of the society proposed by the speaker, along with the ideas we produce when we’re given the license to imagine our own parts of this society. This idea of unavoidable cultural influence on our thoughts goes along with the arbitrary suggestions about things like beer and clergy in a way that proves the impossibility of the city of Omelas, because each of us has our own, specific idea about what would make up a happy society. These arbitrary preferences are made up of cultural traditions, as language is made of arbitrary conventions and traditions. Both continue to affect how the city of Omelas, the idea of happiness, is presented, and it even affects many fundamental beliefs in Omelas.

Despite the contradictions and freely imagined details surrounding the city, the vital, non-negotiable aspect is, of course, the child underneath the city. While much more could be said about the festival and customs, it is this child that gives the people of Omelas their noted complexity amidst their otherwise easy life. But what is their decision? To stay, and continue to benefit from suffering, or leave, and allow suffering to give benefits. It would be easy to praise those who walk away, seeing the other citizen who rationalizes suffering as the villain, and these seem to be the only two options presented to the reader. But to merely shine a light onto this and other binaries might risk circumventing the need to think of greater questions (Ellis 277). These are supposed to be intelligent people (LeGuin 2) with access to anything the reader imagines will make them perfectly happy, so could anybody really walk away knowing their sacrifice helps no one?

First, let’s look at those who stay. We’ve talked about cultural frameworks helping to build our interpretations (Tompkins 734), and this does seem to apply to how religion is viewed in the speaker’s version of Omelas, but there are other ways to apply this idea to the text. For instance, we see the reasoning of those who stay in Omelas, despite the suffering child, positively reinforced by the speaker’s own framing of the idea that “Some of them understand why, and some do not” (LeGuin 4). Those who do not understand the “why” are not framed to know “why not,” and the reasoning of those who stay, the dominant view, is the focal point of the argument. We see the rationalization of the young, who feel a moral pain for the first time. But with time to remember the luxury of their position, it’s said that “Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it” (LeGuin 4). It is interesting to note that with time they come to see this injustice as terrible justice, which brings to mind the idea of utter fairness. But perhaps these people of Omelas have their own idea of justice, made up of the experiences and traditions in their community. Such ingrained ideas about justice, right and wrong, are difficult, though not impossible to see past; and the ones who supposedly leave could not do so without a rejection of their culture. But this stoic image of one who leaves may itself be nothing more than a cultural framework.

The idea of a single person going against society, taking on some unnecessary burden, might intend to inspire confidence. But the text, maintaining its unconventional tone, while adding praise to the people overall, could support this idea that nobody walks away by asking, after the child is revealed, with very specific diction, “are [the people] not more credible? But there is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible” (LeGuin 5; emphasis added). It is incredible to think about this selfless sacrifice, but the idea that someone leaves may be less credible. Suffering outside Omelas will not end the suffering within, and an intelligent, complex person in Omelas has no reason to change course other than the speaker’s suggestion: that immeasurable happiness is outweighed by some negative emotion, spurred by the child in the basement. With infinite pleasures, what could it be that drives some people away? Do they possess shame? In my Omelas, there were—as the author suggests there may be—nudists in the procession (LeGuin 2), and from this there seems to be no shame. Guilt is another reason to leave, but there is no guilt (LeGuin 2), that would imply regret and sadness in Omelas. With this there seems to be something more credible about Omelas because of those who chose to stay and benefit, as leaving changes nothing. But maybe, as it sounds so nice, the idea of some other person suffering has enough power to drive the comfortable mad.

The image of a lone figure walking away in protest is noble, but reinforcing this convention of stoic self-sacrifice doesn’t appear to fit in, unequally contrasted with the highly personalized and infinite pleasures of Omelas. The speaker’s attempt to show us the people of Omelas, and the idea of happiness, is developed further than conventions might normally allow with many abstract, convention breaking passages that allow for a flexible understanding of happiness that is fueled by each reader’s own ideas. In fact, every aspect of the city, from rules to traditions, could be nothing more than the result of a cultural framework, which is equally true for my vison of Omelas compared to what yours may have been. But, whether these ideas of a happy community are all cultural constructs or not, the contradictions and breaks of convention within the text reveal that happiness is truly a subjective idea, and that language has inherent flaws that keep ideas from ever being perfectly expressed.

Works Cited

Ellis, John M. “What Does Deconstruction Contribute to Theory of Criticism?” The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Knapp, Steven and Michaels, Walter B. “Against Theory 2: Hermeneutics and Deconstruction” The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

LeGuin, Ursula K. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

Tompkins, Jane. “A Short Course in Post-Structuralism.” National Council of Teachers of English, 1988.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book