I had originally planned to post a stand-alone review of last week’s Deal Me In story, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” But then I read this week’s story – Anton Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” – and was immediately struck by the similarity of underlying theme shared between the two. I decided I needed to talk about this related strand of thought explored in very different ways by authors from such different times and places.
Story #39, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” - represented on my challenge roster by the 7 of Hearts – was first published in 1973 in the multi-author anthology New Dimensions 3 and in soon-after in Le Guin’s collection The Winds Twelve Quarters. The story was awarded the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1974. This fact would seem to suggest that the story is science fiction, but it isn’t. There is nothing especially science fictional or fantastical in this work, which is more of a philosophical musing than a story with plot and named characters. I suppose one might best label the work “speculative,” as it posits a “What if…” question to the reader and suggests a thought exercise based on that question.
The titular Omelas is a city of fortunate, happy people who enjoy lives free of pain or poverty. They have much to celebrate and do so with gusto. But there is a dark side to this prosperity which each citizen must confront during adolescence. (I will be vague so as not to spoil the impact of the piece.) For the people of Omelas to continue to enjoy their utopian way of life, one individual must suffer, scorned and living in isolation and deprivation. The rest of the populace, however horrified to learn the truth of this, must agree to ignore or actively participate in the maltreatment of this individual. Although some may want to attempt a rescue or at least lessen the suffering, the consequences of this for the rest of the citizens would change their way of life for the worse. So they look the other way, pretending the atrocity does not occur or convincing themselves that the prosperity of the many is worth the misery of one. There is one other option, undertaken by a relative very few: They can choose to walk away.
I was immediately reminded of real-world examples of a very similar attitude. People may well know that their favorite brand of athletic shoes is created by children in horrible sweat-shop conditions. They may be fully aware that their smartphone is both full of conflict minerals the acquisition of which actively supports the violence and bloodshed in some nebulous region on the other side of the world and fashioned by factory workers whose daily pay is a mere pittance compared to an hour of their own. The beauty of their wedding ring outshines the meaning of the term “blood diamonds.” They may understand that their coffee beans or quinoa is picked by indigenous peoples who see no actual benefit for their work and can no longer afford to eat their ancestral food due to the demand from elsewhere in the world. They may even realize that the votes of the majority often stifle the needs, desires and rights of the minority. But they want a smartphone. They love their coffee. They need good quality shoes. They don’t personally support the aims of the warlord who profits from the diamond mines, and their wedding ring is an enduring symbol of love. So they look the other way.
Le Guin doesn’t preach to the reader. (And neither is it my aim to do so, despite what the harshness of my previous paragraph might suggest.) She doesn’t point her authorial finger and accuse anyone or fling hard truths in the reader’s face. (She is far more subtle than I, which is but one of hundreds of excellent reasons why, of the two of us, she is the revered author.) She presents her fictional city with its hypothetical ethical quandary and leaves the door open for the reader to connect the dots to issues in the real world. One might interpret this story through any number of lenses and continue the lines of thought to many different situations in one’s life, each of which seems to present a complex and knotted collection of un-makeable ethical choices. But looked at through perhaps the clearest and least-complicated lens, there is only one core choice at the heart of these matters: either A. to opt in – to agree, to decline to object, or B. to refuse to participate, to reject the benefits no matter how pleasing, how “necessary”… to leave the crowd and walk away.
Story #40, “Gooseberries” (Gutenberg, public domain) was brought to me by the Jack of Diamonds. This story, published in 1898 and frequently anthologized, walks a very different path to arrive at territory very much akin to that explored by Le Guin.
Seeking shelter from the rain, two men present themselves at the home of a third. Ivan Ivanich tells a tale to the other two men, detailing the progression of the life of his two-years-younger brother, Nicholai. The brothers have a title of nobility handed down from their father, although his estate was sold to pay his debts. Nicholai has long nurtured an obsession with owning land and having a farmstead. He draws up diagrams and plans (always including gooseberry bushes, which he seems to see as symbolic of prosperity), scours ads of land for sale and saves every penny he earns. Despite his lucrative job, he lives much like a beggar, starving himself so that all his wages can be saved toward his dream. This dream obsesses him so that he sleeps poorly, and for many years his life is empty except for these fantasies.
After many years apart, Ivan hears that his brother has married. Nicholai’s new wife is an elderly widow whom he cares nothing for, but he very much adores her money. He makes her live like a pauper, with not even enough bread to eat, and soon she withers and dies. He channels all her money into purchasing the land for which he has so long pined, which includes a small farmstead and covers 300 acres. There are many peasants in residence as tenant farmers across this land, and although it does contain a river (brown from the run-off of a brickyard and a gelatin factory) it does not contain gooseberry bushes. Nicholai plants 20 bushes and settles down to enjoy his dream.
The next season, Ivan visits his brother to see how he is getting along. He learns that Nicholai is dismissive at best of the peasants and that upon attaining prosperity, he has developed an attitude of feeling he knows best how others should run their lives. Once a year on his birthday, he provides the peasantry with vodka, and they celebrate and praise his name for his generosity, forgetting how poorly he treats them the rest of the year. At dinner, Nicholai displays a huge platter of the first crop of his estate’s gooseberries. He insists they taste sweet and wonderful, but to Ivan they seem hard and sour. Nicholai convinces himself that his life and this symbol of his prosperity are perfect and without blemish, while Ivan knows they are bitter and but mere hollow status symbols.
Later that night, Nicholai is again plagued by insomnia, as he is drawn again and again to eat more from the platter of sour gooseberries, metaphorically counting his gold, lying to himself again and again by convincing himself of the goodness and the sweetness of his life.
I immediately felt that Chekhov is using a different writing technique – more of a parable than Le Guin’s philosophical what-iffery – to steer the reader to some of the same intellectual territory. Again we have someone who benefits at the expense of others – his miserable wife, his miserable tenant farmers, as well as his miserable self whose years have been spent living a life of self-imposed deprivation, devoid of companionship, healthy food or pleasure – a life devoid of Life – and who has managed to convince himself it is all worth it in the end. The ends justify the means, no matter who suffers and how much.
Both Le Guin and Chekhov seem to me to be saying that if a person is to enjoy those ends, he or she must make themselves aware of the means. He or she must decide if the desirable outcome is indeed “worth” the costs and if our own convenience or happiness is worth actively allowing or turning a blind eye to suffering. Two authors a century apart, on opposite sides of the world address here very similar, perhaps universal questions that we all must face in our own lives. We must make informed choices, be aware of how our own success may affect others. We should also live our lives, not deprive ourselves in the extreme and thus cause ourselves needless suffering in the name of prosperity to be achieved “someday”.