Do You Believe? An Essay of Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

Several scholars argue that The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, written by Ursula K. Le Guin, was motivated by Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and/or William James’s The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life. All three share a common theme: what if the happiness of “millions [depended] on one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment” (James 188). Although the two aforementioned stories and James’s essay, appear as having one central philosophical origin, Le Guin explains “[she] didn’t read James and sit down and say ‘now I’ll write a story about that “lost soul” and she clearly rules out referencing Dostoyevsky as inspiration (225). Instead she writes, “[Omelas] came from a road sign: Salem (Oregon) backwards” (225). Therefore, if one were to associate the word Salem with witches or horror, and compare the geography of both Salem, Oregon and Salem Massachusetts with the fictional city of Omelas, it is clear that Le Guin draws upon the Salem witch trials of the 1600s, utilizing the metaphorical “lost soul” in the form of a child to represent those accused of witchcraft, and the “ones who walk away,” embody the people disgusted by the gross abuse of religious and political power.

In the second foreword of three forewords in Stephen King’s On Writing: A memoir of the craft, he explains: “fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do—not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad” (11). King goes on to say:

When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done you have to step back and look at the forest…Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something or something’s yours is about (201).

These illustrations seem contradictory. Even so, after reading a novel or short story, there is a desire by the writer and also the reader to find some deeper meaning within the context. Often times this leads to confusion. For instance, in the bible, there are stories told using parables that illustrate a moral attitude or religious principle with allegorical explanations. Still writers and readers should expect to extract some sense of purpose. In Omelas, Le Guin intentionally evades giving the reader crucial pieces of the elusive plot. She writes that “[she] sat down and started a story just because [she] felt like it, with nothing but the word Omelas in mind” (225). Nevertheless, she goes on to say that “Salem equals schelomo equals salaam equals Peace” (225). This is a contradiction, same as Stephen King’s because she began with nothing but the word Omelas, although she was well aware of an association of Salem meaning peace in its anglicized form derived from the Hebrew word shalom. One could then postulate that Le Guin associated the word Salem with witches. Witches are synonymous with Salem. Thus, “the word witch conjures the word Salem” (Rosenthal 209). By denying she used Dostoevsky or James as a catalyst to write Omelas, Le Guin when asked, “Where do you get your ideas from,” answers, “from forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else” (225)? In Omelas, Le Guin asks her audience: “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy” (228)? The reader should ask if he or she believes that Le Guin simply used the word Omelas, with nothing else in mind and he or she would find it in the same way unbelievable. Thereby, comparing the geography of Omelas, with that of Salem, Massachusetts, as well as the horrific events in Salem’s history involving accusations, trials, and subsequent executions of innocents as being the lost soul depicted in this story, one can see how Le Guin takes advantage of the ghastly imagery invoked by the word Salem.

To conclude that Le Guin’s story of the fictional town of Omelas is based loosely on the events surrounding the Salem witch hunts, it is first necessary to find credible evidence linking the word Salem with witchcraft or horror. Without Le Guin’s telling the reader Omelas is Salem spelt backwards with an “O” representing Oregon, one would most likely overlook the Salem witchcraft connections. The connotations of Salem are deeper than the “O” representing Oregon, because the author interprets Salem as meaning peace and when she does mention Oregon, it is in parenthesis, suggesting its only purpose was to add the “O” to Melas, which when placed together equals “Homme hélas, the French phrase meaning: human woe. This suggests two things, either before she wrote this story she had a purpose, and upon reading her draft, realized the concurrence of a “lost soul” in her story was reminiscent of that of Dostoevsky and James. Or from the onset she envisioned those accused of witchcraft and the city affected by the carnival like atmosphere surrounding the trials, when Salem and homme hélas, or human woe were coupled.

Comparing Salem with human woe or oppression is expected. The Salem witch trials “have emerged as one of the major images in American imagination” (Rosenthal 212). Charles W. Upham, a historian and author of Salem Witchcraft wrote in the 1800s:

The witchcraft delusion of 1693 has attracted universal attention since the date of its occurrence, and will, in all coming ages, render the name of Salem notable throughout the world. Wherever the place we live in is mentioned, this memorable transaction will be found associated with it; and those who know nothing else of our history or our character will be sure to know, and tauntingly to inform us, that we hanged the witches (3).

The city of Salem has struggled with its storied history. Nevertheless, “Salem has ambivalently accepted this connection” (Rosenthal 204). The tourist industry strives off those who visit museums and locales associated with the shocking executions of innocents accused of witchcraft. One may even ask, while touring the beautiful city of Salem, the same questions Le Guin poses in Omelas, “Do you believe?”

Le Guin begins the story “With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city of Omelas” (225). The fictional city of Omelas is set near a harbor, “bright-towered by the sea” (Le Guin 225). Comparing the geographies, Salem, Massachusetts has a prominent seaport, while Salem, Oregon is divided by the Willamette River. The “Festival of Summer” is also significant, because to this day the city of Salem, Massachusetts celebrates the birthday of one of its favorite sons and author Nathanial Hawthorne. This event takes place during the month of July at its annual Salem Maritime Festival. Hawthorne, a descendent of a magistrate and judge at the Salem hearings, offered an apology in the introduction of The Scarlet Letter:

I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent and ask pardon of heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them in another state of being. [I] hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them—as I have heard, and as the dreary unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back, would argue to exist—may now be henceforth removed (10).

Albeit, this connection to Hawthorne and the Maritime festival to Le Guin’s “Festival of Summer” could be happenstance, it is worth noting the parallels.

Le Guin paints the opening paragraphs of Omelas vibrantly. She tells us in brilliant style that the horses before the race, “wore no gear at all but a halter without bit. Their manes were braided with streamers of silver, gold, and green” (225). There was dancing in the streets and “merry women carrying their babies and chatting as they walked” (225). However, midway through this story, Le Guin creates enmity between the joyous city and the reader. The antagonist is a child that is locked away “in a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one its spacious private homes” (228). Although, Le Guin describes in detail “the room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room” (229). She will not tell the reader whether the child is a girl or a boy or the child’s age. Le Guin deliberately keeps these details from the audience. By doing so, not giving birth to the child, meaning the author could state as fact the gender, age, or specific location where the child is being held, she creates a metaphor of oppression with no comprehensible face or straightforward answers on how the child came to be in this predicament, and in the end only shows us that oppression exists. Le Guin expounds:

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas…they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of the skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery (229).

In the above quote, Le Guin refers to the child or the metaphor as “it is.” Considering Le Guin is drawing upon the events of the Salem witch hunts, when she writes that the “people know it is there”, she is referring to the stigma surrounding the city having believed they’d been cursed and the only way to remove this curse is to hold those accused of witchcraft responsible by trial and execution.

Furthermore, Le Guin writes that some after visiting the child “will leave home. These people go out into the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas” (231). In the aftermath of the Salem witch hunts “a very considerable number of people left [Salem]” (Upham 465). These are the ones who walk away or do nothing to stop the mêlée out of fear of being accused of witchcraft or being in union with the devil. Le Guin says “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” (231). Most of those who left Salem, must have felt the same feeling of going “into the darkness”.

Bruce Brandt, a professor at South Dakota State University, suggests “Omelas is not ultimately about the child per se, but about the choice that confronts each of the city’s residents” (56). Brandt notes the religious implications, and compares the people who walk away with Caiaphas who plotted against Jesus. Even so, Le Guin does not advocate religion as being prevalent in Omelas. She writes, “But really it would be better to not have any temples in Omelas—at least, not manned temples. Religion yes, clergy no” (227). A Deists explanation, would rule out a Christian connotation. On the other hand, “Le Guin indicates that her story is to be read politically” (Collins 1). Le Guin explains, “The dilemma of the American conscience can hardly be better stated” (275). An explanation linking political association to Salem can be found in Bernard Rosenthal’s Salem Story:

Any historian could quickly rattle off a number of events in American history that were rooted in injustice and caused the death of more than some twenty people; but none could find an episode of injustice that has similarly shaped our metaphors of persecution or found a city to contain its symbol (212-213).

In recent years, there have been other books and television shows using the word Salem knowingly to illicit thoughts of horror or witchcraft. Stephen King, known for his fanciful tales of terror, wrote Salem’s Lot. Whether King exploits the word Salem in the same fashion Le Guin does in Omelas, one can be sure that King did nothing to improve Salem’s image. Chris Brancato, writer and executive producer of Sci/Fi Channels First Wave, takes advantage of the wicked witch similes and Salem in an episode titled Book of Shadows. The episode takes place in Salem, Oregon, in which a teenager is accused of witchcraft. There is resounding evidence Ursula Le Guin drew upon the events surrounding the Salem witch trials to create a metaphor remarkably similar to that of Dostoyevsky and James’s “lost soul” as well. In Omelas, one may find that once they enter, they are immersed in a utopian world, asking if they believe in the joy, or in the child whose pain permits the city to exists. The metaphor does exist, there is no doubt. Oppression exist, it is not hard to find. However, some will read The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas expecting to find some deeper meaning or wonder why Omelas “and other stories like it have not so far achieved any notable emancipation; they have not transformed the American conscience” (Collins 1). Omelas was not intended to change the world, and if so, Le Guin should read road signs backwards more often.Works Cited

Brandt, Bruce E., “Two Additional Antecedents for Ursuala Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” AMC Summer 2003: 16.

Collins, Jerre. “Leaving Omelas: Questions of Faith and Understanding.” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (1990): 1-7.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter.New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

James, William. Essays on Faith and Morals. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1962.

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York City: Scribner, 2000.

Le Guin , Ursula. “The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas.” The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. New York: Harper, 1975.

Rosenthal, David. Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692. New York City: Cambridge UP, 1993.

Terras, Victor. A Karamazov Companion: Commentary on the Genesis, Language, and Style of Dostoevsky’s Novel. Madison: Wisconsin UP, 1981. 09

Upham, Charles W. Salem Witchcraft.Toronto: General Publishing Company, 2000. 
Copyright © 2005, Chad M. Ard, All Rights Reserved.

Published by Chad Ard

Author, Editor

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