Would you walk away from an Omelette?
I meant Omelas. Would you, dear reader, walk away from Omelas, pronounced OH-meh-lahss???
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then allow me to explain.
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin that centers around a society whose happiness is dependent on the cruel, inhumane treatment of one child who lives, locked up, beneath the city. The otherwise plotless short story asks the reader to ponder whether an entire society’s happiness is worth the misery of one person.
The story is really short — it’s only a couple of pages long, and if you would like to read the short story before reading this book chat, then you can easily find the short story online and finish reading it in five minutes. 👍
I stumbled upon this short story through BTS’s music video for their song, “봄날 (Spring Day).” The song and music videos are beautiful, so if you want to expose yourself to some brilliant cinematography and Kpop music, then I would definitely recommend checking the music video out. Anyways, within “봄날 (Spring Day),” a motel appears with the sign “Omelas” over it, and the meaning of BTS’s music video directly relates to the themes of Le Guin’s short story.
This book chat exists because I wanted to read “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and understand its concepts and themes before I dive into analyzing “봄날 (Spring Day).”
Let’s try to understand Omelas whilst trying not to think of omelettes too much during this book chat! 😆
No, Jin. This isn’t about omelettes. This is going to be a very deep discussion on the morality or lack thereof regarding condoning the forced lifelong misery of one person for the happiness of an entire society.
I know, Jin. Perhaps next time.
*sympathetic pat* 😊
Since “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is really short, I’m going to discuss what comes to my mind while I reread the story.
Shall we begin?
In the first paragraph of the short story, Le Guin describes the Festival of Summer, depicting Omelas as a really bright and celebratory place. It’s interesting to see the story progress from this carefree mood to one much darker when Le Guin reveals who allows all this happiness to exist within Omelas: the child locked up underneath the city.
In “봄날 (Spring Day),” a lot of party scenes were depicted, and I’m starting to wonder if the celebrations in “봄날 (Spring Day)” carry the same meaning as the Festival of Summer celebrations: the celebrations are just a way to cover up the darkness regarding why Omelas is so happy.
But back to the beginning of the story — Le Guin mentions that, when she describes the setting of Omelas in terms of its geography, that “[f]ar off to the north and west the mountains stood up half encircling Omelas on her bay. The air of morning was so clear that the snow white crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air, under the dark blue of the sky” (Le Guin 1).
FELLOW BTS FANS (AKA ARMYS), YOU CAUGHT THAT, RIGHT? Le Guin’s description of the outskirts of Omelas seems exactly like the mountains depicted in the music video for “봄날 (Spring Day)!” For example, at 2:34 within the video, Jin is shown to be standing with a backdrop of MOUNTAINS.
This is a connection I haven’t read/seen about regarding Omelas and “봄날 (Spring Day),” and right now, I’m thinking that Jin might be someone who walked away from Omelas in the music video. Since this isn’t a music analysis post, I won’t go into further detail now, but I’d like to point out how, in the music video, Jimin is also shown sitting in front of the same backdrop of mountains in the motel/laundry room of Omelas.
Later in the story, this quote appeared:
[P]eople from towns up and down the coast have been coming in to Omelas during the last days before the Festival on very fast little trains and double-decked trams, and that the train station of Omelas is actually the handsomest building in town, though plainer than the magnificent Farmers’ Market. (Le Guin 3)
Trains and train stations play a huge part in the music video for “봄날 (Spring Day)” — the opening scene of the music video is literally of an abandoned train station, then it jumps to Jungkook staring out the window on a train, then later to Rap Monster rapping his part standing in a train.
The fact that the train Le Guin mentioned is bringing people into Omelas will be important to keep in mind when I analyze the music video for “봄날 (Spring Day),” as it suggests that everyone on the train has Omelas as their intended destination.
The story continues… and Le Guin finally reveals the living situation of the child who lives beneath the city of Omelas.
The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually. (Le Guin 3)
That description is only a hint of how the child is treated. Le Guin’s description of the cruel treatment of the child is so eloquently written that, as I read the paragraph, I completely forgot about the Festival of Summer and the celebrations that were going on. All my attention was on Le Guin’s revealing what happened beneath the city of happiness, and nothing else. I was captured by horror.
People do know of the child, and some visit it. But Le Guin gives an explanation why no one would spare the child for the destruction of the happiness and prosperity within Omelas: guilt. The overall benefit of having this child be treated inhumanely was better than the sure doom of the entire city of Omelas if the child were to be let out of that locked, dark room.
Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox…. But as time goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released…. [i]t is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. (Le Guin 6)
Reading the above quote, I have to admit that I got slightly angry with those “young people.” The fact that they dared to justify the continued mistreatment of the child by saying “[i]t is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear,” not to mention call the child an “it,” is so… weak to me.
However, Le Guin later states that it is the knowledge that Omelas’ happiness is based on the unhappiness and heartless treatment of this one child that the city is so prosperous, so joyful, so delightful. Everyone dares not to waste this difficultly-earned happiness, therefore are gentle with their children, always celebrate vivaciously, and work hard to improve their architecture and science and music.
Just when the short story could have ended like that, Le Guin lets us in on a little secret. Some of the youth — and even the adults — who see the child do not return 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…. towards the mountains. (Le Guin 7)
And they keep walking to “a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness” (Le Guin 7), though they all appear to know what they are walking towards in life.
The ending is very open-ended. We don’t know where these people are going, only that
1) they left Omelas for good, and
2) they all “seem to know where they are going” (Le Guin 7), meaning they left Omelas with intent, with purpose.
All of those who walk away from Omelas clearly did not support the mistreatment of the child. For them, the happiness of Omelas was not enough of a justification for the way the child was locked up underneath the bright city. It’s important to note that Le Guin mentions how their destination is “even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness.”
What does that mean?
I think that the place the ones who walk away from Omelas are headed towards is a place of uncertainty, of no guaranteed happiness. Because there is no guaranteed happiness outside of Omelas, those who walk away from the city actually have a chance to experience true happiness. After all, in Omelas, happiness is the standard.
They were not simple folk, you see, though they were happy. But we do not say the words of cheer much any more. All smiles have become archaic. (Le Guin 2)
When you know that unhappiness exists, and know that at any given moment, the joy you feel in the present may dissipate into thin air, replaced with darker, negative emotions… that’s when you treasure moments of happiness more, because you have a comparison of happiness to unhappiness. The people who walk away from Omelas are going into a place where they can experience unhappiness, and they will learn to appreciate happiness when they experience it more because they know they have earned it.
They know how fleeting happiness can be.
They’re in a place where they won’t feel a tinge of guilt every time they feel joy, because they know the existence of happiness in their life isn’t the result of the pain and misery another is forced to endure.
We don’t know if the ones who walk away from Omelas really make it to a place where they can experience happiness without guilt, but that is their intent. That in itself makes those who walk away from the city stronger than those who decide to stay within the city, for they’re risking a life of unhappiness for a chance of real, self-earned and self-made happiness.
I feel very lucky that I don’t live in a city like Omelas. I like to think that if I did, however, I would be one of those who walk away from Omelas. 😊
What about you?
Thank you so much for reading, and I will cya next time!
Omelette… Omelas… Omelette… Omelomelette… 🍳