“…It follows from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people. Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive” (Le Guin 1-2).
The narrator is describing the city of Omelas and its people, who are happy but not simple. They live in a seemingly perfect society, where “they did not use swords, or keep slaves…got on without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb” (1). This quote foreshadows the truth we learn about the boy in the cellar, and how his misery is what sustains the happiness of these people (3). As such, the people have decided what is necessary for that happiness, and that it is not destructive.
When I first read this quote, I didn’t quite understand it. In fact, I labeled it with a question mark because the wording threw me off. The meaning I have come to is that, throughout our lives, we make a lot of decisions. Some are simple, like what to have for lunch, and others more complex, like which politician to support. As altruistic as we like to make ourselves out to be, I think we tend to prefer the decisions that will make us specifically happy.
To reword this quote, I might say that a series of decisions are made by society between what’s most important, what’s desired, and what’s harmful. Though, of course, that will mean different things to different people. What’s harmful to me might be important to someone else, what I just see as a desire might be seen as harmful (i.e. technological devices that make life convenient for me but contribute to carbon emissions).
This would lead into the idea of the boy trapped in the cellar. It’s certainly true that he is being harmed. He deals constantly with “fear, malnutrition, and neglect” and believes that he has been put there because he has done something bad, crying out, “please, let me out. I will be good” (3)! It’s unclear what his suffering has to do with sustaining happiness, but “they all know [the boy] is there, all the people of Omelas” (3). And even though there are people who, upon seeing the boy, leave and don’t come back, there are still so many who are content with this understanding that their happiness cannot exist unless this wrong is done.
The people who do not walk away from Omelas, adults and children alike, have made a decision. Sure, there might be a period where they live in ignorance, like the children before they go to visit, but overall the people are being willfully blind. To me, this boy represents the undesirable things that exist in our world. Things that cannot fully disappear, even in a perfect society. The isms, oppression, unfair labor practices, etc. People experience pain on a daily basis, and yet many of us are fine with such things existing because, hey, that sweatshop makes really nice dresses that I can wear to my party. We make decisions that what is destructive is necessary.
The final thought I had that made me chuckle (and perhaps it shouldn’t have), was that the narrator was going out of their way to make this place seem real to the readers, encouraging them to add whatever they liked to this city. The final piece of information we are given, then, is about this great darkness. And somehow, by highlighting this uncomfortable truth about humanity, this world was instantly made more real.
Do the needs and happiness of the many take precedence over the few?
Class discussion and impact:
We had a very interesting class because we focused more on themes in the reading rather than just individual QCQs. Utilitarianism, happiness, and the mentality of “out of sight, out of mind” were all examined in different ways. We mainly had similar thoughts with slight variations, and we also wondered if we had our own ‘boy in the cellar’ in American society. I definitely want to continue to explore what utilitarianism really means and who is determined as less deserving that the majority. I think it relates strongly to my social work studies. After all, a main goal of ours is that we’re meant to be providing resources for everyone, but who needs them more? And just what does that mean for those who are left behind in the cellar?