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Those Who Walk Away From the Omelas


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Has anyone read this short story by Ursula Le Guin? 

I would really like to discuss it especially in light of the pandemic.  Is the pandemic a call for us to walk away from an unsustainable culture? Am I just over thinking things?

I am having a hard time framing my thoughts and would like to have a sounding board discussion. 

Thanks

Denise

 

 

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12 minutes ago, Tanaqui said:

I've never been able to read it the same way since realizing that Omelas is just Salem, O. backwards.

She mentions that in the introduction to the story in the version I read. I loved her comments that her inspiration included Dostoevsky and reading road signs backwards. 🙂 🙂 

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Interesting. I had never heard of it, but I just read it. It reminded me of The Lottery or The Giver.

Before you can read today's situation into it, wouldn't you have to address the widespread lack of happiness prior to the pandemic? It does echo the idea found in those other stories that happiness comes at a cost.

This is not to say that I necessarily disagree with your premise of our culture being unsustainable.

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1 minute ago, SusanC said:

Interesting. I had never heard of it, but I just read it. It reminded me of The Lottery or The Giver.

Before you can read today's situation into it, wouldn't you have to address the widespread lack of happiness prior to the pandemic? It does echo the idea found in those other stories that happiness comes at a cost.

This is not to say that I necessarily disagree with your premise of our culture being unsustainable.

Several stories around the pandemic have brought the Omelas to my mind.  Over crowded prisons, homelessness, dependency on low wage foreign labor, but in particular the agricultural system.

My thoughts have focused on our agricultural and food distribution systems. Many of us have lived with the comfortable delusion that anything we need (or want) will be available when we need it. The system as it is runs to an extent on underpaid labor , ecologically unsustainable agricultural methods and inhumane treatment of livestock. Why is something so central to human lives based on efficiency over humanity?

How much of our comfort has been based on suffering and struggles that are 'out of sight, out of mind'.  

If we did want to 'walk away' the story never says where they go. 

I am not really sure where I am headed with this or if I just have too much 'thinking' time on my hands. 

Just wanted to kick it around with people whom I know have already taken one step (home school) away from our default cultural setting. 

 

 

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Prefacing my comments with the following, which is my analysis about most utopian/dystopian stories: The story shows a typical utopia/dystopia, in the sense that most utopias attempt to re-create a paradise -- but it always ends up being at a cost to someone, or to a segment of the population, which ultimately turns it into a dystopia.

Here, the cost of the utopia is at the cost of keeping one human from infancy in completely inhuman conditions and not allowing the person to develop and grow as a human, or to develop sentience and humanity. It is also a dystopia to the entire population, having to live with the knowledge that they have utopia at that cost. The ones who walk away are those who cannot live with that cost, or can't manage to lock away/ignore the knowledge of that cost. So they walk away from the utopia, because it's no longer utopia, but hell.

I find this story a little bit problematic or unbelievable in that the only "protest" is to walk away -- that no one attempts a change to the society, even though that would "rock the boat" and change the "utopia". Apparently, no one feels it would be worth the cost?? They're all too "polite" to boat-rock?? They think they won't "share in the guilt" if they just walk away?? Not sure.

Also, I am not immediately seeing a way to connect the story to the current pandemic. We do not live in a utopia, and the social isolation is not a walking away from the troubling "foundation" for a utopia, but is to protect from spreading disease -- which is a kindness/help/ support of others, rather than a walking away and leaving it all behind (which seems rather selfish and cowardly to me)...

Also re: the other social ills you mention -- I don't see a clear connection with Omelas, because I DO see pockets of people throughout our culture attempting to change things for the better, or sharing from their own bounty, or trying to simplify, or bring about true justice and mercy, or trying to be good stewards of our resources/environment/others... In contrast, I don't see any of that in Omelas. Just a walking away and leaving it all behind. Which strikes me as just another form of trying to put that miserable child out of their minds, just like everyone else who stays is doing. Which ultimately is just as uncaring and unhelpful as those who are able to stay in Omelas by putting it out of their minds. JMO.

Finally: Ursula Le Guin was very interested in Tao-ism, and thinking/philosophy of yin-yang balance. In a way, Omelas is a visual image of that Tai-Chi yin-yang symbol: a dot of black in the midst of the white field (and white dot in the midst of the black field) is what allows you to understand, and balance, shadow and light. In the story, one way of interpreting it is that there is the "black dot" of the miserable/inhuman child in the midst of the "white field" of the "perfected utopia" -- the needed opposite to have "balance". Which is a monstrously frightening idea...

Just thoughts off the top of my head, so take it FWIW. 😉 It is an interesting story to discuss with teens, however! Warmest regards, Lori D.

Edited by Lori D.
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I read it first in high school. I've always liked LeGuin and it's totally one of her best.

The parallels with our pandemic world honestly don't strike me immediately. But if I had to argue for one then maybe it's the moment of reveal. In Omelas, of the child. Here, of all the ways in which our broken society - which people have refused to acknowledge is anything but utopian - can't rise to the pandemic. Jobs and healthcare inexorably linked seems rather stupid in a pandemic when no one can work. Grocery workers and shipping folks being both essential and downtroddenly low waged suddenly feels like a cruel joke. The federal government's long term cutting of spending on "waste" suddenly seems horrifying when you realize that included everyone who was supposed to study and prepare for pandemics and all the equipment that should have been stockpiled and all the projects to produce cheaper equipment. Capitalism in general feels a bit like a joke when states are made to compete for resources in the middle of their citizens dying. I think maybe for some people that feels like a curtain pulling back moment - there's the costs to how we've been living, all suddenly laid out before us.

I think I don't fully feel that... I've just seen that other people say they do.

I don't know that we can walk away though. I mean, there's nowhere to walk to in a pandemic.

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24 minutes ago, Danae said:


Lori, have you read N.K. Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight”?


No, but I loved her Broken Earth trilogy, so I can only imagine what her take is, if (as that title suggests) her story is a sort of response to Le Guin's story! 😄 

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UK Le Guin is my favorite author, and this is my favorite of her short stories.

(Or was, I haven't thought about it in a while).

I've read that she explicitly talked about it as related to the prison problem in the US, which I can see.  I think it can be a useful thought exercise for any issue about which you feel strongly; I have thought about it in the past as relates to factory farming.

I am not sure what I think now.  It's a beautiful story, and a heartrending message, and yet, when applied to most things in the actual world...it's hard to walk away from Omelas.  There's nowhere to go that has no suffering.  With factory farming in particular (since that's how I've thought of it in applied terms in the past), what it leads to is not just not eating factory farmed animal products - though that is a place to start.  but if you keep seeing it as black and white, you can't really eat most farmed food at all, because they rely on fertilizers from factory farmed animals (even the veg.).  You can't walk on the sidewalks, or drive a car, or ride a bus (all produced, I've read here and there, with some byproducts of farmed animals).  You can't pay your taxes, because those taxes go back to support hog farms.  It just becomes complicated.  There's no over the mountain to escape to, because all the mountains are occupied.

You could maybe go live on a small island in the Pacific that grows all their own food or something?  But really, the reason a larger state hasn't taken over that island is partially because of the detente between major world powers, and the might of the West and the US in particular, so nowhere is completely free from complicity in causing suffering.

 

The message I used to take from it was that you had to do the best you could to avoid complicity, and it did lead to a lot of very stringent restrictions on the way I lived.  I'm currently reevaluating that and I don't know what I think, nor do I know what the story means anymore.

I will say that I used to read Le Guin's blog (she had a blog, of all things, towards the end, and it was generally wonderful) and she once made fun of people who avoided factory farmed animal products in the most ridiculous every-vegetarian-ever-has-heard-this-line way (What about farmed vegetables?  How do we know they're not suffering? etc.)  

I thought it was pretty funny that she and I obviously saw the moral implications of her work so differently.

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I have never read this before.  I'm glad to now have done so.

The same thing bothers me about this that made me absolutely hate "The Corrections".  (Although I don't hate this story.  I just disagree with it.)  And that is the proposed absolute that all happiness is at someone's expense.  I disagree with that profoundly and deeply.  I think that we can all lift each other up together.  I think Jesus thinks so, too.   At least that is how He always acted.  His most defining characteristic on earth was compassion.  

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10 hours ago, livetoread said:

I just wanted to say this story has been on my mind a lot lately. For me, it’s about our willingness for others to suffer more so we can suffer less, and I see it playing out in many ways both before and after the virus. 

 

Definitely, thank you for putting it so succinctly. 

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8 hours ago, moonflower said:

UK Le Guin is my favorite author, and this is my favorite of her short stories.

(Or was, I haven't thought about it in a while).

I've read that she explicitly talked about it as related to the prison problem in the US, which I can see.  I think it can be a useful thought exercise for any issue about which you feel strongly; I have thought about it in the past as relates to factory farming.

I am not sure what I think now.  It's a beautiful story, and a heartrending message, and yet, when applied to most things in the actual world...it's hard to walk away from Omelas.  There's nowhere to go that has no suffering.  With factory farming in particular (since that's how I've thought of it in applied terms in the past), what it leads to is not just not eating factory farmed animal products - though that is a place to start.  but if you keep seeing it as black and white, you can't really eat most farmed food at all, because they rely on fertilizers from factory farmed animals (even the veg.).  You can't walk on the sidewalks, or drive a car, or ride a bus (all produced, I've read here and there, with some byproducts of farmed animals).  You can't pay your taxes, because those taxes go back to support hog farms.  It just becomes complicated.  There's no over the mountain to escape to, because all the mountains are occupied.

 

 

I also saw the link to factory farming. Not only is it morally suspect but the extreme 'economic' efficiency model has led us to a brittle system that might not provide for our needs in a crisis. 

The second question I asked myself was 'what does it look like to walk away".  I don't know. I have always supported local agriculture, I will focus more on that. I have taught an after school cooking program and led a school garden, I will definitely do more of that. But that is just the surface, as you pointed out. 

How do we walk away from an unstable, unjust system? Food, Prisons, Wage Disparity, Foreign Intervention. The train of thought could follow many different topics. 

Thank you for your response. 

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1 hour ago, Carol in Cal. said:

I have never read this before.  I'm glad to now have done so.

The same thing bothers me about this that made me absolutely hate "The Corrections".  (Although I don't hate this story.  I just disagree with it.)  And that is the proposed absolute that all happiness is at someone's expense.  I disagree with that profoundly and deeply.  I think that we can all lift each other up together.  I think Jesus thinks so, too.   At least that is how He always acted.  His most defining characteristic on earth was compassion.  

Is she saying that? I didn't read it as a statement of absolute at all (first time today, thank you for posting it, Mercy and Denise!).  

I don't think she's saying that every society is so, just that if you are in such a society and become aware of it, you are then forced to deal with the information. She didn't actually make a "should" statement. 

She was appealing to our horror at the scenario. Our feeling at the end of the story depends on our perception of the way we live.  Some might read it, acknowledge it's similarity to their own society, and go right on because the suffering is a cost of doing business. 

I mean, if I read that as a teen (I was pretty sheltered), I'd think she was indicting an abusive somewhere-else. Now that I've read more about farm labor in the US, I react with more discomfort. 

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11 hours ago, Lori D. said:

I find this story a little bit problematic or unbelievable in that the only "protest" is to walk away -- that no one attempts a change to the society, even though that would "rock the boat" and change the "utopia". Apparently, no one feels it would be worth the cost?? They're all too "polite" to boat-rock?? They think they won't "share in the guilt" if they just walk away?? Not sure.

 

 Thank you for the response.

I think the part that stuck with me was the 'walk away' part. Those who walked away were not even given names. This is not a story about heroes. 

I think we as a society have accepted a level of inhumanity in the name of 'Happiness" and "Security".  But both the happiness and the security are illusions.

Do we rock the boat or walk away? Do we need to change the system or is it enough to not profit personally. 

Like I said, it is possible I have too much 'thinking' time on my hands. I tried this conversation with some IRL friends but some are not readers and some see only solutions in terms of favorite politicians. 

 

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On 4/1/2020 at 7:53 AM, Denise Still in Florida said:

...I think the part that stuck with me was the 'walk away' part. Those who walked away were not even given names...

Actually, they do have a name: "The Ones Who Walk Away". As I recall,  it is the rest of the people who don't have any names.
 

On 4/1/2020 at 7:53 AM, Denise Still in Florida said:

...This is not a story about heroes...

And yet, there is a strong sense that Le Guin meant these to be the people for the reader to connect with -- or at least prefer them to those who stay -- since those who walk away at least are troubled enough by the horrible secret at the core of their society that makes their utopia possible that they can't stay there any longer. I would suggest that she meant them to be the characters who feel the suffering too much to keep living there. Or perhaps that they are the questioners, and go in search of answers, or possibly solutions, or a new "system", because they cannot (or will not?) continue to live under a system where one must suffer for the rest to thrive. Notice all my qualifiers -- Le Guin leaves it pretty open to interpretation. 😉 

Als note: above here ^^^ I'm responding specifically to your comments about the story, not the larger questions you raised. 😉 
 

On 4/1/2020 at 7:53 AM, Denise Still in Florida said:

...I think we as a society have accepted a level of inhumanity in the name of 'Happiness" and "Security".  But both the happiness and the security are illusions.
Do we rock the boat or walk away? Do we need to change the system or is it enough to not profit personally...

Always good questions to raise!
 

On 4/1/2020 at 7:53 AM, Denise Still in Florida said:

...I tried this conversation with some IRL friends but some are not readers and some see only solutions in terms of favorite politicians...

That is sad and disappointing. 😞 

Edited by Lori D.
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8 minutes ago, HeighHo said:

When I read that one back in high school, I thought it was a caution that civilization would be lost if a person let his baser instincts rule his body, remaining childish as s/he aged rather than letting the reasoning part of his brain mature and be in control. Letting the hindbrain rule, so to speak.  There was other sci fi at the time along that theme.

As far as ag, the book you should read next might be " Malabar Farm" by Louis Bromfield, one of the earlier people promoting sustainable ag. 

 

Thank you for the book recommendation. One of the things I love about discussion here is the wide variety of reading we can connect to. 🙂

 

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58 minutes ago, HeighHo said:

When I read that one back in high school, I thought it was a caution that civilization would be lost if a person let his baser instincts rule his body, remaining childish as s/he aged rather than letting the reasoning part of his brain mature and be in control. Letting the hindbrain rule, so to speak.  There was other sci fi at the time along that theme.

As far as ag, the book you should read next might be " Malabar Farm" by Louis Bromfield, one of the earlier people promoting sustainable ag. 


Interesting. I've not heard that interpretation before.

These details suggest it is not the child's choice, but that the child has been imprisoned against the child's will:

"... there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window... The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes—the child has no understanding of time or interval—sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up... The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer... They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but 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 their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery... Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed. The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child."


Perhaps it is this paragraph, that comes after the ones I quoted above, that leads to that civilization caution you described above?? :

"
Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years. But as time goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in. Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children. They know that if the wretched one were not there sniveling in the dark, the other one, the flute- player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer."

Edited by Lori D.
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15 hours ago, Denise Still in Florida said:

...If we did want to 'walk away' the story never says where they go...


Just re-read the story -- it is interesting that the last line is: "But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas."

Definitely a sort of "Lady or the Tiger" ending -- Le Guin is leaving it to the reader to decide where the ones who walk away" are going, as they "seem to know where they are going"... Maybe it's to allow us to apply the story to different social injustices?? And to come up with different possible ways of solving or approaching those injustices??

Thanks for starting this thread!

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It's just that as an abstract idea, it's nice, the idea that you can walk away from a paradise that depends on one child's (read: one small marginalized population's) extreme suffering.

But in reality, you really can't.  There's nowhere to go.  I have in the past been very extreme about it re: factory farming and I'm still working what I actually think about that, and it's confusing.  I wish it were as simple as walking away from Omelas.

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7 hours ago, Carol in Cal. said:

...  I just disagree with... the proposed absolute that all happiness is at someone's expense.  I disagree with that profoundly and deeply.  I think that we can all lift each other up together.  I think Jesus thinks so, too.   At least that is how He always acted.  His most defining characteristic on earth was compassion.  


I whole-heartedly agree with you about the transformative power of Jesus to work in our hearts, and as we allow allow him to work in us, we can transform the world with his charity (literally "love in action"), compassion, truth, grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

In case it helps, here's an excerpt from the lesson I wrote for my Lit. class on dystopias -- it is from a Christian perspective. [Happy for people to use this if it helps, but please don't reprint without permission, as I am hoping one day to include this in a publishable Lit. guide 😄 Thanks!]

paradise, utopia, and dystopia
From a Christian perspective, to understand dystopia, we also ned to understand what paradise and utopia are. 

In a Christian worldview, paradise is Eden, the perfect home  on Earth created by God for humans (Genesis chap. 1-2). Through the choice to give in to temptation and disobey God, humans lost the earthly paradise -- Eden (Genesis chap. 3). Paradise is also the future, eternal home of all who have a redeemed relationship with God—in other words, heaven (Revelation chap. 22). Works of literature often borrow from these Biblical ideas and use the idea of paradise to mean either a heaven-on-Earth perfect world, or an imperfect, messed-up world restored to Eden-like perfection.

Somewhat related to a paradise is a utopia (from a Greek term meaning “no place”). In Christian terms, this is man’s attempt to create an ideal society on Earth. The term was first used in Sir Thomas More’s 1516 book, Utopia, which described a "perfect" society (which the reader begins to see has flaws)—while the author also satirized and pointed out the flaws of the imperfect British government of his day. Since More’s introduction of the idea, “utopia” has come to mean to a society with near-perfect qualities.

There are several types of utopias in literature: a social utopia is an intentionally created community with socialist traits, such as: the sharing of goods; no need of a monetary system; people work for the common good; individuals do work they enjoy or are gifted at; and people have time to develop personal interests, such as art or music. Below the Root by Zilpha Keatly Snyder has a social utopia setting. An ecological utopia is a naturally-occurring near-perfect world in which people live simple lifestyles, in harmony/balance with nature. Frequently, these types of utopias are set on alien worlds. The Na’vi people in the film Avatar live in an ecological utopia. And there are scientific or technological utopias are set in the far future, with humans implanted with technology to perfect their bodies, or with technology relied on for everyday living, and where science has removed virtually all illnesses and extended human lives. Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clark, is an example of this utopia.

In contrast, a dystopia (Greek term meaning “bad place”) is the opposite of utopia—it is a flawed, oppressive society created by man. Often, the dystopia was originally a utopia -- an attempt to create a paradise (heaven on Earth) -- but it turns out to be dystopia, which is discovered during the story  when the surface of the seemingly-ideal world is “peeled back” to reveal the violence, oppression, and “cost” being paid by some in the society for others to have “utopia.” Many dystopias have a very structured, rule-based form of government (totalitarian government or a dictatorship) that tightly controls most aspects of the society.

From utopia to dystopia: in a Christian worldview, utopias always fall short of true perfection (paradise) because they are made by fallen, sinful humans. Only the perfect God can create true paradise. In works of literature, when the veneer of a utopia, or “ideal society,” is removed, the repressive, negative aspects that were used to create and maintain the utopia are uncovered. In dystopian literature, as an individual awakens to the problems of his or her “utopia,” the dystopia elements of the world are uncovered. These are frequently the same kinds of problems we have in the current, real world, having to do with the environment, politics, social structure, ethics, science, or technology.

Edited by Lori D.
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6 hours ago, Carol in Cal. said:

I have never read this before.  I'm glad to now have done so.

The same thing bothers me about this that made me absolutely hate "The Corrections".  (Although I don't hate this story.  I just disagree with it.)  And that is the proposed absolute that all happiness is at someone's expense.  I disagree with that profoundly and deeply.  I think that we can all lift each other up together.  I think Jesus thinks so, too.   At least that is how He always acted.  His most defining characteristic on earth was compassion.  

 

In my opinion the author IS saying that in the world as set up by the Omelas all happiness is at someone's expense. I see many parallels to our society.

I don't think is HAS to be this way only that it currently IS that way.  

Jesus definitely was teaching a different way.  That is why his teachings were and are radical.  The lesson I would see if I compared Omelas to Christ's teachings is that the way they are treating the child is in fact the way they would treat him. 

 

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I finally was able to sit down and read this. I'll share a few off-the-cuff thoughts.

First, I am not seeing an obvious connection to our pandemic circumstances, but perhaps to our current modern culture, where pursuit of happiness is arguably more desired by the majority than pursuit of justice & mercy.

Omelas, golden though it is initially described, is a hedonistic culture. In the first part of the story it stood out to me that they could pursue this happy hedonism because it carried no shame for them. But enter the child.

The child is their shame. 

The choice comes before each as he learns of the child. Will he choose to bury his shame and carry on with the hedonism? For most, yes; they rationalize away all the reasons this locked-away child should remain so, a scapegoat, a lesser valued human sacrifice. Others, unable to bear the shame, walk away.

But why do they walk away alone? Why not liberate the child and take it along? Why do the troubled ones not unite in mercy and challenge the status quo? Without an act of justice, there's no escaping the shame, no matter how far they walk. It is not seeking the better; it is simply flight. 

I have not studied what inspired LeGuin to write this story. But imo, it is not an heroic tale. In this fiction, and in this present reality, my eyes will always be on the lookout for a Redeemer.

 

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