The dark room
The story begins with a horse race, with boys and girls, pulling at their restive charges, naked in the morning air. The course is marked by banners, which flutter and snap in the breeze. Everything is cheer and sweetness. There is joy even in the clatter of bells.
The writer doesn’t trouble for specifics. She is happy for the reader to decide. Perhaps this is a city of subway trains and floating lights and fuel-free power. Perhaps not. Perhaps here the common cold has been cured, or it hasn’t.
Ursula K. Le Guin says that some things are certain in this city, which she calls Omelas. The author says there is no guilt. She says the people who live here are singularly happy – happy above all else – but that does not make them simple.
She says, if you wish, to imagine a fairytale or an orgy. She says to imagine nakedness and tambourines and beloved children. There are no clergy and no soldiers. Contentedness is generous and the sense of triumph magnanimous.
There is music and food. Le Guin describes both in detail – a guide, should it help the reader to imagine. She does not know the laws of this society but she suspects there are few.
In the basement of an opulent public building, or perhaps under a private manor, there is a room with one locked door and no window. The light is second-hand, spilling between cracks. The floor is dirt and mop heads stand stiff in a bucket. The room is no larger than a closet.
“In the room a child is sitting,” Le Guin writes. “It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten.”
The child is enfeebled by abuse. It fears the mops. Occasionally its door rattles and a person is there or several people and they beat the child. Others look with disgusted eyes. The child speaks less and less. Its body is withered with malnutrition. There are sores where it has sat in excrement.
“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas,” Le Guin writes. “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.”
Le Guin writes that this is explained to children in Omelas when they are between eight and 12. She says it is mostly the young who want to see the child and that whenever they do, no matter how prepared, they feel revulsion and impotence.
“But there is nothing they can do,” she writes. “If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. 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.”
When this story was published in 1973, it was as a thought experiment. The idea of perpetual suffering, forced on a child for the benefit of an otherwise benign society, of endless detention and terrible deprivation, was science fiction.
And yet here we are. Even as the children are slowly pulled from Nauru, Peter Dutton defends the Omelas he has built. He refuses to accept there are humanitarian reasons for closing the camps. He looks prideful at the damaged lives and warns that compassion is a pull factor. He says only that the bolted room with its clotted mops is too expensive to keep.
Le Guin’s society is one without guilt. She imagined this would be necessary to sustain the horrors of her fiction, because she could not imagine Peter Dutton or a country that would, with all the faculties of its conscience, still accept such a compact.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 3, 2018 as "The dark room". Subscribe here.