Understanding Utopia in the Postmodern Literature

From The Lecture Series: Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

Long before Utopia was published, as well as in the 500 years since, humans have tried to find a shared understanding of what a perfect society might look like and, more importantly, how it could be achieved. Let us try and understand the meaning of the word utopia.

A fairy tale landscape with hot air balloon, moon, and earth.
The term utopia provides a rich philosophical and literary space for thinking about, if not a perfect place, at least a better place. (Image: NikoNomad/Shutterstock)

In 1516, a highly respected member of English Parliament named Thomas More sat down to write the story of an isolated island called Nusquama. Derived from the Latin word Nusquam, which means nowhere and on no occasion, Nusquama represented an imaginary realm, a no-place in which More could try out a number of philosophical, political, social ideas. In revisions, More changed the island’s to the much more familiar Utopia.

The beauty of utopia is that although it has the same meaning as Nusquama—since in Greek u means no and topos means place—it is a homonym pronounced exactly the same way of, eutopia, except spelled with a eu, which means a good or perfect place. And that is the power of the term utopia, which is a paradox in itself: the perfect place is identical to no place.

This is a transcript from the video series
Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Utopia in Le Guin’s Omelas

Ursula K. Le Guin carefully crafts a utopian world in her short story named The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Written in 1973, the story opens on a festival in the city Omelas. The festival is joyous, and the first-person narrator immediately assures us that although that might sound kind of childish, it isn’t. In Omelas, happiness is possible. And it’s not because the people are simple-minded. In fact, they aren’t any less complex than we are. The big difference between us and the people of Omelas is that they believe in happiness.

Happy man, covering half his face with a smiling emoticon.
Unlike us, people of Omelas believe in happiness. (Image: Minerva Studio/Shutterstock)

“The trouble,” the narrator tells us, “is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting.”

With all the horrible things that are happening in the world, how can a smart, well-educated person possibly believe in happiness? Isn’t personal happiness always elusive? When someone asks, “How are you?” we respond with, “I’m great.” What we mean is that today I’m healthy and fulfilled and so are the people closest to me.

Can We Devalue Happiness?

We all know that what is true for today can change at any moment. A series of extreme weather events, a meteor, a nuclear weapon, aggressive aliens, a recognition that Earth’s governments, military or elected are leading us into a very dark future of conformity, surveillance, economic disparity.

Happiness is stupid? Yes, when Le Guin’s narrator says that we tend to devalue happiness, the more cynical among us will agree and go one step further: we have good reason to devalue happiness.

Learn more about Thomas More and utopian origins.

What makes the people of Omelas happy?

The narrator says it is difficult to describe the reason for the happiness of people of Omelas. Certainly, Omelas doesn’t have clergy, slavery, or soldiers, but otherwise it’s best for each reader to imagine it for him or herself. Maybe Omelas has amazingly advanced technology, or maybe it’s fairly pastoral.

Or, maybe the people are committed to traditional virtues, or maybe they like orgies. If orgies sound better than chastity, the narrator tells us, go ahead and “add an orgy.” The words “add an orgy” highlight the debate within utopian writing and thinking.

But, how much do the details matter? In conceptualizing a better place, is a writer required to carefully document all the details of a highly functional society based on superior ethical and organizational principles? Or is utopia about something else altogether? Is it about a big concept—hope, perhaps; fear—in which case the individual details really aren’t that important at all?

Learn more about Samuel Butler and utopian technologies.

The Terrified Child in Omelas

For Le Guin, it seems to be the latter, except that as soon as the reader is comfortable with the idea that he or she gets to make up the details, the narrator hits us with an extremely vivid account of one feature of Omelas.

The narrator takes us into a small, locked, windowless room in the basement of one of the grandest, most beautiful public buildings in all of Omelas. In that basement lives a child, a small, neglected, undernourished, naked child covered in sores from sitting in its own excrement. The child, who could be a boy or a girl, and looks 6 years old but is actually closer to 10, remembers its mother’s voice and the sunlight from before, but now lives in near-total isolation in abject wretchedness and fear.

A Terrible Paradox in Le Guin’s Omelas

The child is terrified of the two mops that are leaned up against the wall in the corner of the tiny room. What about the good people of Omelas? Well, it turns out they all know the child is there. The narrator tells us:

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 depends wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

It’s “a terrible paradox,” but it’s also a paradox that answers the happiness question the cynical among us might have had at the opening of the story. The paradox can be read in two ways. First, the only people who can live in a utopia are those who understand that their happiness is built on someone else’s misery—it has to be. Or second, the only way to even be able to imagine or conceptualize happiness is by seeing its opposite: abjection.

Learn more about Swift, Voltaire, and utopian satire.

A Postmodern Utopian Story

The story doesn’t end with the child and the paradox that it engenders; the story ends with a reflection on the construction and ethics of knowledge, which is more interesting than it sounds. The narrator explains that everyone in Omelas is told about the hopeless child in the broom closet when they’re about the same age as the child: 8–12 years old. Most people rage impotently on the child’s behalf at first, but then they come to understand, even to accept. That’s the price of a well-functioning society, of a happy populace.

The story ends with the people leaving Omelas. The ending isn’t about the happy, understanding utopians, though. It’s about the outliers, the people who just can’t assimilate the knowledge of the sacrifice into their psyche.

The story encapsulates the intellectual energy of both utopia and dystopia. This is not a classic utopia. In fact, it’s what we might call a postmodern utopian story. There’s a way to see Omelas as a blueprint. But it’s not a blueprint of a perfect society—it doesn’t even tell us any details. No, it’s a blueprint for a utopian story.

Common Questions about Understanding Utopia in the Postmodern Literature

Q: Who made up the term utopia?

Thomas More, an English Parliamentarian, made up the term utopia.

Q: Who wrote the short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas?

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.

Q: Is the short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas a classic utopia?

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is not a classic utopia. In fact, it’s what we might call a postmodern utopian story.

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