In David Brooks’ recent column, readers of the New York Times were taken on a journey back to English class. Instead of a defense of a foreign coup, a tale of his life as a teenage weed-head turned narc, or something vaguely racist, the vaunted columnist offered a reading of Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic short parable, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”
I also love to teach this story, as it consistently blows teenagers’ (and apparently Times columnists’) minds. To sum it up crudely, it’s a utopia/dystopia that describes a conflict-free land of plenty called Omelas, whose joyous existence is solely dependent on the continued neglect of one hungry, unloved, filthy child chained in a basement. At the end of the story, we learn that some people cannot abide this bargain, even to be forever happy, so they leave.
The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”
Brooks offers several takes, including a final trippy one about Omelas being representative of the modern human mind (“LeGuin hacked Brooks’ brain!” quoth Flavorwire’s own Jonathon Sturgeon). But, smart fellow that he is, Brooks resists the obvious explanation that we are all the Omelas people who don’t walk away, and we are complicit.
“The people who stay in Omelas aren’t bad,” he assures us. “They just find it easier and easier to live with the misery they depend upon.” As for the characters who do leave, he has little more than contempt — “They walk away from prosperity, and they make some radical commitment. They would rather work toward some inner purity,” he sneers. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Silly me, I actually assumed these folks were the story’s heroes, visionaries risking it all to attempt to find a better society that, as yet, we cannot imagine.
But I was totally wrong. They’re actually narcissists searching for inner purity. Losers. Now that I’ve read Brook’s upside-down analysis of this beloved tale, though, I can’t help but wonder if I was wrong all along about lots of classic short fiction. Maybe the most disturbing short stories in the canon have a different meaning than I originally took from them in my youth.
So, in search of answers, I (telepathically) asked Brooks to offer a succinct moral takeaway from a few more gems of short prose.
“A Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” F. Scott Fitzgerald
Summary: A small-town student at a big Northeast boarding school discovers that his classmates’ old-money family is hoarding a mountain of diamonds and protecting it through violence.
Brooks’ take: Fitzgerald shows us here that the resources of the world are best safeguarded by a carefully chosen educational elite, and when meddlesome new money upstarts get involved (cough cough, affirmative action!), the only inevitable result is violence and a sad destruction of the old ways.
“A&P,” John Updike
Summary: A disaffected young grocery clerk walks off his job in pursuit of a beautiful trio of girls and a chance to follow through on a grand gesture.
Brooks’ take: What Updike is really saying is that as much as we want to give them the benefit of the doubt, sometimes the working poor really are lazy and simply want to slack off. Tell me, my liberal friends, exactly how will welfare help this loser stay on track?
“The Swimmer,” John Cheever
Summary: A man swims through every pool in Westchester, symbolically, as his life falls apart around him.
Brooks’ take: A lot of people criticize suburbia and the bourgeoisie, but swimming pools are a great use of our money! Just think, this fellow’s addiction to swimming is healthy, and it’s clear that he’s using fitness to avoid becoming an alcoholic or, god forbid, a weed-smoker. Besides, kids tell me that a young hip hopper by the name of Kendrick Lamar also promotes swimming as an alternative to drinking. Let’s all dive in.
“The Gift of the Magi,” O. Henry
Summary: A destitute couple pawn their last worldly possessions, long hair and a watch, in order to buy each other ironically useless gifts of a hair clip and watch chain.
Brooks’ take: Some might say these two are “rich in love,” but I think this is just another example of how the poor consistently make unwise decisions about their own future. Let’s just say this tragic mix-up would never have happened if these hapless folks put their investment decisions in the hands of a Yale man.
“Hills Like White Elephants,” Ernest Hemingway
Summary: A couple takes a train so that the girl can have an “operation.” The man assures her it will be OK, while she’s terrified and moves from resistance to acceptance.
Brooks’ take: The pro-choice faction in this country will never truly reckon with the moral implications of abortion.
“The Necklace,” Guy de Maupassant
Summary: A vain woman wastes her life trying to pay back the price of a lost diamond necklace, which [SPOILER] it turns out was paste all along.
Brooks’ take: While it’s unfortunate that this woman got herself into debt based on a misunderstanding, I think it’s heartening that she discovered the joy and value of the Protestant work ethic. Unlike a fake necklace, that gift is priceless! Maybe her kids will get into Yale.
Brooks’ take: I do not understand this story. Is it trying to be feminist?
“The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson
Summary: A barbaric custom in a small town calls for a single person, drawn by lots, to be stoned to death once a year. Everyone thinks this makes the corn grow, and society functions.
Brooks’ take: Let’s ask ourselves this question. Are the people participating in the Lottery really “bad,” or are they just getting inured to stoning people to death? Or wait, wait, what if the lottery is happening in my mind right now, and I’m actually ritualistically stoning my conscience to death by writing a column? Holy shit, that’s intense. Hey Maureen, maybe we should chill out with those edibles.