Analyse how language features were used to explore a universal idea
If you had to choose, what would you do? Would you choose to exchange all the goodness and grace of every life, the happiness of thousands, for the chance of happiness of one? In the dystopian short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (TOWWAFO) (1973), Ursula LeGuin, author, develops the utilitarian city of Omelas, while leaving it open for us to decide our own details, before shocking us with how she describes how the whole city’s happiness is dependent the suffering of a single child, posing us with the question of would we stay, knowing what our happiness depended on, or would we leave. LeGuin explores this universal idea of the moral dilemma of a utilitarian approach to society (utilitarianism being an ethical theory which determines right from wrong according to which provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people) through the use of language features as she develops the subjective utopic city of Omelas and questions whether or not we believe in it, before contrasting this bright happiness with the dark suffering of the child in the basement. LeGuin then poses this universal idea to us, asking us whether we would choose to stay and be complicit in the suffering of the child or walk away in order to show how the idea of utilitarianism is also present in our own society with mass consumerism and the exploitation of labour in order to produce cheap products for us.
LeGuin introduces the universal idea of the moral dilemma of a utilitarian approach to society to us as she develops the subjective utopic city of Omelas, before questioning us as to whether we really believe such a place can exist. LeGuin introduces the city of Omelas using descriptive language, with pathetic fallacy being used in the ‘bright sunlit’ ‘Festival of Summer’ to describe how the perfect society of Omelas. She also uses compares the townspeople, particularly the children, to swallows, using alliteration in ‘set the swallows soaring’ and a simile comparing the children’s ‘high calls rising like the swallows’ crossing flights’. By comparing the children to the swallows, LeGuin highlights the joy and freedom (emphasised by the positive connotations of ‘soaring’) experienced by the townspeople, both of which we would want in our own utopia. Alongside the diect rhetorical questions used in ‘Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?’, LeGuin draws us into this romantic society portrayed, making us complicit in it just as the townspeople are - aiming to lead us into designing a world that seems too perfect to be true. In doing so, she then foreshadows the idea that a utopia cannot exist – that a society cannot exist without suffering. She does this through direct address, ‘Omelas sounds … like a city in a fairytale … perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for I certainly cannot suit you all’, in order to suggest the idea that a utopia created will not be utopic for every person. Not only does this direct address make us question whether a utopia can ever exist then, if there will always be somebody for which it is not a utopia, but by encouraging us to design our own utopia, she further makes us complicit in what is later revealed to only be caused by the suffering of the child. LeGuin uses the opening of the short story to demonstrate how what may seem a perfect society is just a society good at hiding its skeletons. This rings true with us, as we reflect on how despite what producers and big-label brands lead us to believe, they also have their own skeletons – such as the exploited children working long hours in sweatshops – making us realise just what we take for granted.
LeGuin then furthers this universal idea as she contrasts the bright happiness of the city of Omelas with the dark suffering of the child in the basement. LeGuin begins by shifting the tone of the piece through repeated rhetorical questions, asking the reader ‘Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing’, making us realise that we never actually believed such a city could be possible, that it always just felt like a fairytale. She then goes on to contrast this utopic view of the city by revealing how ‘under one of the beautiful public buildings or … one of its spacious, private homes, there is a room’ in which a child is sitting. LeGuin uses vivid imagery to describe the room in which ‘a little light seeps in dustily between cracks’ and ‘mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand’ making us feel sorry for the child. Throughout the story, LeGuin refers to the child as an ‘it’. This choice of personal pronouns reflects the townspeoples attempts to dehumanise the child. Through the repetition of uncertainties like ‘it could be a boy or girl’, ‘perhaps it was born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition and neglect’ LeGuin demonstrates how the townspeople would prefer not to know more about the child – as by not viewing it as human, it is easier to reconcile with its mistreatment – as well as how the people who feed it do so as quickly as possible as ‘the food bowl and water jug are hastily filled, the door locked, the eyes disappear’. As ‘the terms are … absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child’, the people justify the mistreatment of child by claiming ‘it must be there’, reconciling themselves with the fact that one child’s suffering is worth is for the good of the whole city of Omelas. This shocks us as the reader, making us wonder how the townspeople could leave the poor child to ‘sit in its own excrement continually’, in order for their lives to be improved. However, LeGuin then forces us to reflect on how we do the same to the suffering children of our society – close our eyes, pretend we didn’t see it and go on living our own lives. LeGuin questions why we have accepted the suffering of these children in our own society, but not the child in Omelas. The universal idea of utilitarianism in Omelas, is also highly relevant within our own society, as we realise how much more we relate to Omelas than we did at the beginning of the story, as we realise how much we stand to lose.
LeGuin finally poses this universal idea to us, asking us whether we would choose to stay or walk away. Although we originally found Omelas, as a perfect society, difficult to relate to, seeing that it also has its flaws makes us able to relate to it more – with LeGuin using a rhetorical question to ask us, ‘Now do you believe in them? Is it not more credible?’, causing us to question whether we believe our own society has the ability to do the same. LeGuin discusses the justification of the townspeople, using listing to explain how all the people ‘understand that their happiness … even the abundance of their harvest and kindly weathers of the skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery’, as well as strong emotive language in the phrase ‘this child’s abominable misery’ in order to provoke us into feeling empathetic towards the child, making us feel as though we would do anything to stop it. However, LeGuin forces us to realise that the children being exploited in our own world to produce fast fashion for us are likely also in ‘abominable misery’, and yet we close our eyes to the truth, even though when we are not benifitting from the situation, we would do something to help. She then reveals that some people, although they don’t help the child, leave the city of Omelas in order to not be complicit in the childs suffering. She uses repetition of the phrase ‘they keep walking’ in order to reflect the sureness that the people leaving feel, that they cannot reconcile the sacrifice of the childs suffering for their own happiness, as well as diction in the verb ‘walk’, as opposed to run or another verb, in order to demonstrate that these people are now at peace with themselves. LeGuin aims for us to realise that in order to not be complicit in the suffering of the children in our world, we don’t have to change big steps like changing things at the source, instead we can just choose not to engage with their products – choosing a sustainable, and likely more expensive, product instead.
LeGuin uses a variety of language techniques throughout her dystopian short story in order to convey the universal idea of a how although a utilitarianistic approach to society may seem ideal, it is not always ethical, developing it as a message relevant to each and every society. In exploring this universal idea, LeGuin reveals how we are complicit in our societies ‘child in a basement’ and questions whether we will stand for whats right and consume less, or will we continue to close our eyes to the truth and live the lives we always have. So what will you choose?