Critical Analysis: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

The first entry in my new essays section. The story of Omelas is a fascinating classic, and I recommend it for anyone who likes to think.

A Critical Analysis of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” a short, fictional story by Ursula Le Guin. Question-and-answer format. Text included. Essay and annotation by Richard X. Thripp.
2008-01-18 —
PDF version, with an annotated copy of the text (1.3MB).

Question One: What is a utopia? Does Omelas meet the definition?
Omelas is a utopia, though not of the lifeless type that the word inspires. Le Guin notes that the inhabitants are not “bland utopians,” not “simple folk,” nor “dulcet shepherds” (2). The residents need not live simply—there can be all sorts of luxuries, wondrous technologies, drugs, beer, and orgies in the streets, because their happiness is not based on possessions, but rather, “a just discrimination of what is necessary,” “what is destructive,” and what is neither (2). This insight is the definition of a utopia; when everyone knows it, wars, slavery, and competition is not needed (2-3). The children are happy, and the adults, “mature, intelligent, [and] passionate” (2), with no need for a hierarchal church or government (2-3). The city is beautiful, the weather and harvests are kind and abundant, and most everyone healthy (5), yet this is just the icing on the cake. It is indeed a utopia, for all except the suffering child (4-5).

Question Two: What is the narrator’s opinion of Omelas?
Our narrator sympathizes with the citizens of Omelas, even going so far as to name the child’s plight as the source of all compassion in the town. “There is no vapid, irresponsible happiness”; all the residents know that “they, like the child, are not free” from the “terrible justice of reality” (6)—that one human, just as important as any other, must be dehumanized for the democratic benefit of the majority. Knowing of the child “makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science” (6); it drives and inspires, gives compassion and robs the people of their innocence. “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,” Le Guin reasons (6). The few that leave, leave without incident, in the dead of night never to return, as their quite protest, going “through the beautiful gates” and farmlands, “to a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness” (7). The narrator seems to find the dilemma at Omelas to be acceptable, as he calls those who leave “incredible” (6), saying that he “cannot describe it at all,” but “they seem to know where they are going” (7). His opinion, like the adults in Omelas, is that idealism must yield to pragmatism; it is too much to ask for everyone to give up the niceties to save one person from a life of torture and suffering.

Question Three: What is the symbolic connotation of the locked, windowless cellar in which the lone child suffers?
The forsaken child is the rotten foundation which their beautiful society rests on. In the iconic words of Honoré de Balzac, “behind every great fortune there is a crime,” and the crime here is that the utopia of Omelas is supported on strict terms: “there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child” (6), lest he be pulled, even for a second, out of his “abominable misery” (5). Children learn the terrible fact between eight and twelve, and no matter how well their parents explain and justify it in advance, the new discovery is sickening and angering (5). It may take months or years, but they will come to accept the torture of one for the benefit of the many—pragmatism will rule over whatever ideals they once held, as they know that the very hour they would save the child, “all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed” (6). Quite a price indeed. We have ethical dilemmas in the real world that are similar yet more murky, such as euthanasia for the hopelessly ill and elderly, triaging in disasters and on the battleground (not every limb, person, or finger can be saved), and wars that are supposably1 fought for the good of the world, but result in millions of deaths and injuries. The story of Omelas symbolizes them all, and as in all such systems, there are some who “walk straight out of the city” (7), never to return, unwilling to bear the guilt. Others gain peace of mind by deciding that the lost child could not possibly be human. He or she is sub-human, and is instead referred to as “it” (4-6), “too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy” (6), and thus the crime is just.

Question Four: In the story, do you find any implied criticism of our own society?
Le Guin criticizes “a bad habit” that trickles down from the “pedants and sophisticates” (2), the classy intellectuals that teach us to celebrate pain over pleasure, violence over peace, and despair over delight. We are taught that “happiness [is] something rather stupid,” while the “banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain” (2) is replaced by fascination with death, deviance, and necromancy. A utopia is a backwards kingdom filled with happy, simple-minded subjects. In the real utopia, there are no careless princesses to be rescued by valiant princes, no arch-bishops to create the newest refinements to an oppressive religion, and no misguided soldiers to fight bloody wars in the name of freedom. You can be happy and peaceful without being a naïve, passionless simpleton. When we come to believe that “only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting,” we have come to “lose hold of everything else” (2). No technological wonders can provide happiness when our thinking is collectively flawed. “Joy built upon successful slaughter” will not do; we must be joyous like the citizens of Omelas, where “the victory they celebrate is that of life” (3), and not of death and suffering.

Photo: The Garden in Yellow

The Garden in Yellow — sharp yellow flowers against a black background

Yellow flowers highlighting a dark garden. This was in the flower section at Wal-Mart; who says you can’t take great photos there? :big-grin:

A darkened background, brighter flowers, and contrast enhancements make this photo stand out.
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Canon Rebel XTi, EFS 18-55mm, 1/40, F3.5, 18mm, ISO100, 2007-08-23T22:21:15-04, 2007-08-23_22h21m15

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Back to School

My winter break ends tomorrow, when I begin my second semester at Daytona Beach College. I’ll be taking six courses (sixteen credit hours), but three of them are with the same wonderful teachers, and one of them is Photography I, so this will be my most fun semester.

The photography course is in-class for four hours weekly, so I won’t be there till Friday. While I do some black-and-white photography, this course will be mostly black-and-white film. I haven’t worked with film before (only digital and digital editing), so this will be a useful learning experience.

The courses I’ll be in: English II, Humanities II, American Political & Economic Issues, Trigonometry, Photography I, and a one-credit course on Internet research, which is good for my intended majors (computer science, and library science as my master’s degree).

Photo: Symmetry

Symmetry — a yellow, sunlit flower against a deep blue sky

The sky makes a beautiful background for flowers. You might have to lay in grass, but it’s worth it for a photo like this. I am pleased that the yellow, blue, and green colors mix nicely. :smile:

The colors pop because of added contrast, and a blending layer with the “soft light” style in Photoshop. I cloned in extra sky at the top; otherwise part of the flowers get chopped off in the print. This is one thing you need to watch out for if you’re going to do borderless printing; don’t put stuff at the edge of the frame or it will be chopped off (bleed edge). Same for television because of overscan.
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Canon PowerShot A620, 1/1600, F3.5, 7.3mm, ISO50, 2006-11-06T10:30:34-05

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Low-Light Photography on your Digital Compact

Low Light — Photo by Richard X. Thripp

Peter Rise has an interesting question for me:

“When you’re doing action photos, do you use the viewfinder, or an LCD display that you can look at from a distance? What are the advantages/disadvantages for each?

I ask because I’ve been *attempting to* take school basketball pictures lately, which I find extremely difficult. Much more difficult than football or wrestling photos, because basketball is much faster-paced. The ball typically switches players within 1-2 seconds, and by the time I find a good photo, they’re on the opposite side of the court. If you could think of any advice that might be helpful, I’d really appreciate it.”

I use the viewfinder, but I have a digital SLR, where you can’t use the LCD screen anyway. On my smaller Canon PowerShot A620, I have both, but I generally use the LCD, to avoid the parallax error, which is quite bad on my camera, even at far distances. If you notice the LCD screen lagging in low light, the viewfinder is better.

Of course, there is then the issue that point-and-shoot cameras don’t operate well without a flash indoors (even if it’s fairly bright). Have you ever noticed at the basketball game, or any indoor performances, that people from 40 feet away have their flashes flashing away? The flash will do no good at that distance, and they’ll get grainy, under-exposed shots and be disappointed. This is due to two problems: one, they have their cameras set to an automatic mode, and the camera does what it thinks is best, which is in this case, horribly wrong (no flash is the only way to go beyond about ten feet). Two: compact cameras have small sensors that do a poor job at gathering light compared to SLRs. I struggled with this problem for two years before getting a Canon Rebel XTi last August, and found the following options:

1. Use the largest aperture setting (lowest F number), though this won’t be enough alone.
2. Increase your camera’s light sensitivity (ISO speed), though this produces grainier photos (digital noise).
3. Use a tripod, hold really still, or brace the camera against a hard surface such as a chair, table, or wall. Get your subjects to hold still too, though this is not an option at a basketball game, of course.
4. If you can’t do 3, use image stabilization, though you’re out of luck if your camera lacks the feature.
5. Go into manual mode and use a faster shutter speed, deliberately under-exposing your photos, and then brightening them on the computer afterwards. This is a bad option, as it lowers the quality your photos’ quality on many levels: shadow detail is lost; posterization and JPEG compression artifacts become noticeable. It won’t be so bad if you use RAW mode, but if your camera offers RAW mode, it’s probably high-end anyway, and you won’t need this kludge.
6. Take three or four photos where you normally would’ve taken one. You’re likely to get one sharp photo, even with a 1/20 shutter speed.
7. Zoom out all the way, because zooming in magnifies camera shake resulting in photos that are more blurry.

Use 1, 2, 3, 6, and 4 (image stabilization) if you have it (but not on a tripod), and you’ll have a winning combination. 7 works if you have to balance the camera yourself, but you’ll include a lot of clutter and barrel distortion may become noticeable.

For the technical details, use “Sports” mode, or if you have an Aperture Priority mode on your camera, switch to it, raise the ISO speed up to 400, and change the F number to the lowest setting (2.8 on my Canon PowerShot). If the photos are still blurry, raise the ISO speed to 800 (if available), or use a tripod or equivalent.

Even after doing all this, you’ll still have the problem of shutter lag. You press the button, and then 2 seconds later, after automagically choosing focus, aperture, shutter speed, white balance, and the flash to use, the camera takes a photo of the empty side of the court. The biggest thing you can do to combat this is to have the camera make these settings in advance, and this is accomplished in almost every camera by pressing the shutter button down half-way, holding it, and then finally pressing it down all the way at the right moment. Keep in mind that your locking in the settings with the half-click, so if you do it on the dimly lit edges of the court and then move to the bright center, you’ll get a photo that’s too bright, and moving close-to-far or vice-versa will merit an out-of-focus image.

If it’s really dark, you’ll have to manually focus the camera. Many compacts don’t offer this, so try locking the settings with a half-click, pointing toward a bright object that is as far away as your darker subject.

If you’re looking for a camera for ambient-light photography, but don’t want to invest in a good digital SLR ($450 for the Canon Rebel XT on, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ6S ($120) and Fujifilm FinePix F40fd ($184) are getting good reviews.

If you are going to be using the flash, 7 Strategies for Avoiding Flash Blow Out at Digital Photography School complements this article.

I took the photo at the top in a dimly lit theater, with a Fujifilm FinePix A360 digital compact (more photos) in auto mode with the flash off. 1/2 shutter speed, ISO250; had to brace the camera on the seat in front of me.

Keywords: low light, ambient light, lighting, dark, indoors, basketball court, flashless photography on the cheap, sensors, iso speed, shutter lag, how-to, suggestions, digital compacts, digital point-and-shoot cameras, p&s, a beginner’s guide

Photo: Complicity

Complicity — a pair of beautiful pink roses

The definition of complicity is “involvement as an accomplice in a questionable act or a crime.” So these roses are not your normal, law-abiding citizens. :wink: This is along the same thread as Simplicity and Implicity, my other photos of roses, which have similar backdrops.

I spent three hours getting the rose and background to look just right. I used the kit lens as it’s the closest I have to macro, but it lacks good “bokeh” (blurring in out-of-focus areas), so I blurred the background in Photoshop, but sharpened the flowers to make them stand out. I desaturated and darkened the background as normal, and went for a less colorful, more contrasty look than Simplicity.
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Canon Rebel XTi, EFS 18-55mm, 1/50, F5.6, 55mm, ISO200, 2007-11-11T08:13:21-05, 20071111-131321rxt

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. Please credit me as “Photo by Richard Thripp” or something similar.

8 Tips for the On-Cue Photographer

Be prepared. — Photo by Richard X. Thripp

I was reading 5 Reasons to Take Your Camera Everywhere in 2008 over at the Digital Photography School Blog, and it really resonated. You need a camera with you to take any sort of photos—this is a point that is not stressed enough in photography guides and classes. I’ve produced my best work on outings not intended for photography: Sky of Fire, Two of Us Against the World, and Sky’s Camouflage, for example. The article is good, but I want to add eight tips so that once you have your camera with you, you’re ready to use it:

1. Leave the SLR at home. Get a small point-and-shoot (P&S) camera so you aren’t loaded down. Make sure shutter lag is slim to nil; the venerable Canon PowerShot A620 (photos) has been in my pocket since 2006, though it’s harder to come by as its gone out of production.

2. Keep one, versatile lens. While this contradicts the above tip, there are some situations where you’ll need an SLR. P&S’s aren’t typically suited for low-light, so if you’re out in the evening or anywhere indoors, where P&S’s can’t work with the ambient light, take an SLR and a fast lens. My choice for such situations is the Canon EF 50mm f1.4 (photos); open the aperture and crank up the ISO speed, and you’ll be able to hand-hold without a flash even for night-time street photography. Then there is bright mid-day, where a slower, zoom lens will be your best bet. I still use the Canon Rebel XTi kit lens (photos); it’s a good start for wide-angle photography and produces sharp photos at f/8.

3. Drop the camera bag. While a bag for your lenses is acceptable (though picking one lens will save weight), your camera needs to be at the ready for baby Lucy to skip through those mud puddles. I’d never be quick enough to get the shot at the top of this article with my camera cooped up in a cozy bag. If you have a P&S, stow it in your pocket, or sling an SLR around your neck.

4. Freshly charged batteries are a must. Murphy’s law states that your batteries will fail just when you need them the most.

5. Have space for 100 photos on your memory card. While you may not capture that many brilliant photos, you won’t have time to swab the decks when that seagull grabs the fish, or those clouds form your Aunt Mary’s face. With the burst modes on modern cameras producing three photos a second, you’ll want plenty of temporary space for crazed snapping.

6. Set your camera. That 15-second exposure with tungsten white balance won’t cut it for a spontaneous afternoon portrait. Set your ISO speed, white balance, and flash preferences, then choose your aperture or shutter speed in the priority modes, and have the camera take care of the rest. If you’ve forgotten to do this, dial in Auto mode real quick for that fleeting Kodak moment; sub-optimal results are better than an over-exposed, blue mess. Use RAW mode for editing leeway, though note that the larger file sizes will slow you down from shot-to-shot.

7. Brace yourself. Blurry photos of your precious moments are no fun. Turn up the shutter speed as much as you can; the same as your lens’ focal length at minimum (i. e. 1/50 second for the EF 50mm f1.4, or 1/80 on the XTi because of the crop factor). Hold still, keep the viewfinder glued to your face, and support the lens barrel with your other hand while you click three shots, then delete all but the sharpest. If you have a P&S, don’t keep it at arm’s length as you’ll shake the camera more.

8. Turn off auto-focus. Even on SLRs, auto-focus causes the biggest delays from click-to-shoot. If your subjects will be consistently far from your camera, lock in the focus and switch to manual mode, then enjoy the lightning-fast shutter lag. Alternately, half-click your shutter button a few seconds in advance and hold it—then when you push down all the way, you’ll get a quick photo with the settings the camera locked in.

Photography is as much about skill as it is being in the right place at the right time. When life’s picture-perfect moments pop up, be sure to have your camera at the ready.

Photo: Sunrays

Sunrays — orange sunlight shines through the clouds in this sunset

Beams of sunshine shoot through the clouds in this beautiful scene. I took this in my front yard; it’s nice that there are no houses there to clutter up the picture. :smile:

I added contrast and brightened the sunrays to enhance the image.
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Canon PowerShot A620, 1/200, F4.5, 8.46mm, ISO50, 2006-10-22T18:26:17-04, 2006-10-22_18h26m17

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More of the Sunrays series.

Photo: Sky’s Camouflage

Sky's Camouflage — a beautiful blue sky reflected on the body of a car

A reflection of a cloudy, deep-blue sky on the side of a car. This is a black car I saw in a parking lot at Home Depot; it must have just been polished as the reflection is very impressive. Luckily, I had a camera with me and snapped this. :smile:
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Fujifilm FinePix A360, 1/278, F2.81, 5.8mm, ISO64, 2006-06-17T14:44:08-04, 2006-06-17_14h44m08

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Photo: Leafy Droplets

Leafy Droplets — a brilliant green leaf adorned with raindrops

Droplets magnify the veins and texture of a brilliant green leaf. Took this after a storm; these are authentic raindrops. I cropped the image tightly, added lots of contrast, and removed some specks of dirt.
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This was the Digital Photo of the Day for 2006-08-10 at

Fujifilm FinePix A360, 1/50, F2.81, 5.8mm, ISO64, 2006-06-28T18:20:02-04

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More of the Leafy Droplets series.