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The Child in the Basement: Socioeconomic Inequality and Silence

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Kate Weiler

The Child in the Basement: Socioeconomic Inequality and Silence

The world is overflowing with inequalities. In the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula Le Guin gives readers a glimpse of a small society named Omelas, a microcosm of the global community. In this particular community, there is a utopia-like atmosphere; all citizens are carefree, unconditionally happy, and their minds are devoid of guilt. The town I grew up in, a small suburban town in Massachusetts, mimics this community in a key way. Most who live there are wealthy, middle-upper class white Americans who have money to spare, and are proud of it. This is their chief happiness. In both Omelas and Sudbury, there is a seedy underbelly to this seemingly universal feeling of comfort and contentedness. While on the surface the population of Omelas seems ideal, the community always keeps a young child locked in squalor in a basement, filthy, malnourished, and alone, in order for the outside happiness to continue. In Sudbury, the hidden injustice is less concrete, but equally present in the community. Growing up in a modest family in a lavish, rich town has shown me firsthand how Sudbury serves as a microcosm for the socioeconomic hierarchy in the United States and in the world, and symbolizes the problems with economic inequality everywhere, showcasing a glaring issue in society today.

It is impossible to refute that the people of Le Guin’s Omelas are part of a happy, satisfied community. With her prose, Le Guin paints a community centered around celebration, victory, and general merriment. She goes out of her way to assert that the happiness of the people of Omelas, like those in the upper class, doesn’t come from stupidity; it comes from their openness to sacrifice one person, the poor child locked in the cellar for all eternity, for the benefit of the rest. It is a universal truth that “[the child] is there…it has to be there.”[1] The idea here is that in order for the majority of the community to remain in a state of unconditional joy and carefreeness, this single child must be subjected to live a miserable life. This comforts the community, as it preserves their way of life, and thus they are numbed to the harm of permanently oppressing the child. This practice has presumably been going on since the community was first founded, and is seen as an unchangeable reality, just the way things are, and have to be for society to function. This draws a direct correlation to the world’s ongoing oppression of certain minorities, such as oppression and slavery of blacks, antisemitism, homophobia, human trafficking, and child labor, and how too little is being done to change them, as they have been around for as long as the human race has. The majority of us hate that these problematic practices are still carried out in 2016, but we eventually just accept that it is just the way it is, and that there is little we can do to change it. This rings true with the major quagmire of the world’s current socioeconomic hierarchy.

In Sudbury, and in many similar privileged communities, there is a mentality that for people to be rich, someone needs to be poor and work to make things for those who can afford it. The child in the basement represents the entirety of the working class, those who suffer and are paid a shockingly low amount of money to do difficult jobs that directly benefit the upper class. The happiness of the people in my town, those of the upper class, comes from their willingness to compare their money to those in different towns, and to the average American, just as the happiness of the people of Omelas “depend[s] wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”[2] Happiness rides on the people at the very bottom, either in the town, country, or world, and the upper classes thrive upon it. Those on the top of the economic pyramid “know that they, like the child, are not free,” and are bound to the long-held belief that the long-standing social contract is necessary for society to function.[3]  The terms of this social contract create the illusion that if that child were to be set free and nurtured, or if there were no socioeconomic classes, “…in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight…would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms.”[4]As Omelas has never been without that young captive, like the civilized world has never seen the obliteration of socioeconomic classes, for all those who live there know, it could lead to their downfall.

Both in Omelas and on this Earth, hierarchy is all anyone has ever known, and for the people at the top, it works well. The people at the bottom, the working class and those living and working at or below the poverty line, are silenced by their lack of influence, just as the child in Omelas is silenced by being locked in a windowless cellar where the only human contact it has is an occasional kicking. Yet, “it is the existence of the child, and [the people’s] knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science,” and this child serves as the sole source of good for the community.[5] This paradox applies directly to social classes; those on the lower end of the social spectrum create with their own hands things that bring the wealthier people happiness, such as iPhones, cheap clothing, and clear class divides. Just as the people of Omelas uses the disadvantage of the child to their benefit, members of the upper class use this economic hierarchy to their advantage. With hierarchy as long-running concept, these people have learned to reject guilt and are kept safe in their bubble of wealth.

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a parable about exploitation and classism. Many citizens of this country and of the world live in societies whose prosperity depends on some child in the basement, far away but equally there. That child is the one the wealthy hire to assemble products for money that is impossible to live on. With every iPhone or Forever 21 dress we use, there is an exploited worker, our own child in the basement, stripped of basic human rights. Society tolerates, even encourages this, using the utilitarian view that the benefit of most is worth the misery of some, and this is far from moral. In the story, some go to see the child in the room and then keep walking, not wanting to be part of that social contract; “they walk ahead into the darkness and they do not come back.”[6] In the real world, these are people and organizations who recognize this stark inequality and fight to change it, such as Bernie Sanders, Other 98 Percent, and countless research universities such as Cornell University and Columbia University are actively advocating for change on this front. This short story, and how much it parallels the economic situation in my hometown as well as the world as a whole, personifies millions of people who work tirelessly for an income no one can possibly live on into one neglected child who is thought to secure happiness for the rest of the community. These people must be set free, as the child should be, as there is no need for some of the population to starve so others can choose which of their yachts to take out for the weekend. Equality will not undo the good in society; on the contrary, it will spread it, decreasing crime rates and expanding opportunities for future generations, and Le Guin’s short story is a personifies society’s need to escape harmful commercialist and utilitarian philosophies, and serves as a clear warning of what could happen if this type of inequality continues. Unless we take a chance and let that child out of the basement and return its dignity, we have no hope of regaining our moral footing as a global society, let alone close the growing socioeconomic status gap.

[1] Le Guin, Ursula. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” 1973. Print. Page 3.

[2] Le Guin, 3.

[3] Le Guin, 4.

[4] Le Guin, 4.

[5] Le Guin, 4.

[6] Le Guin, 4.