Department of English

Spring 2007 Edition

Society: Take it or Leave it

Elisabeth Day
Argumentative 2010 2nd Place
Professor: Dr. Jessica Tvordi

In “The Market Economy” by Marge Piercy and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin, the authors offer a critique of society which forces an evaluation of the reader’s morals and whether or not he/she is pushed about by society. Although it’s impossible to avoid moral dilemmas in society, both pieces of literature effectively portray the corrupt manner in which society controls the population and hides the consequences of those who blindly follow.

“The Market Economy” begins by posing a series of choices to the reader: “Suppose some peddler offered / you can have a color TV / but your baby will be / born with a crooked spine;” (499). Would it be a worthy compromise? The question seems ridiculous at first, buy maybe it would be more time-appropriate to ask “Suppose a restaurant offered you convenient and cheap food, buy your life will be shortened by a heart attack.” Such questions challenge the exchanges average people make for convenience and comfort without thinking of the consequences. In defense of these foolish choices humans make, the poem goes on to say how society doesn’t really offer alternative choices for a better lifestyle: “But where else will you / work? Where else can / you rent but Smog City?” (499)

It’s an overwhelming fact that society will not aid its inhabitants after manipulating them. It offers all the glitz and glam, but says nothing of the negative side-effects that will follow. Thus the poem ends with the profound lines “Don’t read the fine / print, there isn’t any” (499). In the real world, society has to only offer the positive to survive. Nobody would ever ruin their finances with credit cards if the media told right out that the interest rates will be out of this world. Society can’t afford to paint the whole picture; otherwise nobody would buy into it.

Paralleling the message of this poem is that of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” This story speaks of a society which is always happy and never experiences sorrow, defeat, or guilt. When the inhabitants are of age they will be told the secret to their happiness: a suffering child who pleads for freedom but is hidden in a basement. Upon seeing this child, they are bothered, but most eventually accept the suffering of the child because it is the reason they do not have to suffer themselves, and they as one person cannot change the ways of the town anyway. This metaphor alludes to the tactics of society today. Le Guin says “The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid” (424). The media know that they can sell any product or idea if somebody trusted and famous is advertised with it, and then shove the negative consequences in the basement. By the time people find the corrupt side of something “ideal” they either feel helpless in trying to change it, or willing to accept it because “(h)appiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary” (424).

However, every once in a while in Omelas someone will not write off the child’s suffering as a way of life and will walk away from the town, but “. . .they seem to know where they are going” (427). Why would somebody have confidence in walking away from Omelas when the inhabitants therein are always happy? Is it possible that the people of Omelas could be happy without ever having the contrast of being sad?

As Le Guin describes the never-ending happiness of Omelas, she says, “All smiles have become archaic” (423). There was a time period in art well-known for their sculpted figurines which all portrayed the same, over-exaggerated smile. This became known as the “archaic smile.” The people of Omelas always wear this smile, not because they are really happy, but because it is standard, and if they do not appear happy, then the child in the basement is suffering in vain. Perhaps those who walk away realize that merely the absence of misery does not bring the presence of joy.

I see references to Omelas everyday. Flipping through a magazine I see a smiling girl who is skinny and pretty and surrounded by men, and although everything looks perfect, she knows that she hasn’t eaten a real mean for a year and that no matter how good she looks the editor will always airbrush her photo because something wasn’t good enough. But she needs to smile and make others think she is happy, otherwise all the pain she goes through will be in vain. It’s tempting to want to be her even though there must be consequences. What is a little bit of suffering if somebody can look at me and say, “She is beautiful, she smiles, and she has everything?” But in truth, my happiness isn’t real just because it fits the stereotype. Real happiness comes from living a life with meaning that overcomes misery, and the society of Omelas doesn’t have this to offer. I would walk away from Omelas.

Both the people who live in the market economy and Omelas are taken advantage of because they blindly follow the ways of the society. Those who don’t stand against their society will have to join their society and be absorbed into the people-pleasing lifestyle that is expected of them. Who is there to blame in the end? Certainly not the fine print, because there wasn’t any.


Works Cited

Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” Literature: The Human Experience, 9th Ed. Ed. Richard Abcarian and Marvin Klotz. Bedfort / St. Martins Press, 2006. 423-427.

Piercy, Marge. “The Market Economy.” Literature: The Human Experience, 9th Ed. Ed. Richard Abcarian and Marvin Klotz. Bedfort / St. Martins Press, 2006