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Unhappiness in Utopian Literature

2409 words (10 pages) Essay in Literature

18/05/20 Literature Reference this

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 A utopia is a society that is perfect and  where everyone is happy and enjoying their lives. It is more of a dreamed up society that usually won’t function well when it is actually created, although people think it will. In his work The Utility of Utopias, Wilbert E. Moore said, “The derogatory designation “utopian” signifies unrealistic assumptions and unrealizable aspirations” (765). Utopias are unrealistic thoughts and hopes to achieve something that isn’t possible. Dystopian societies often start as the illusion of a utopia, but as the story progresses it is clear that it is not a utopia. They are places of pain and suffering. Not everyone is happy and wants to be a part of the society. The Circle by Dave Eggers shows how creating a utopia can cause unhappiness and not be as perfect as planned. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin also shows that there is misery behind creating a utopia and not everyone is happy living in it. For this reason, both The Circle and The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas are dystopian societies.

 In The Circle by Dave Eggers, the novel begins as a utopian society but as the story progresses, it is clear that is it dystopian. One of the main elements of the story is the political system, called The Circle. The Circle leads the country and is in charge of creating the utopian society and broadcasting it to the people. The Circles Principles are “All that happens must be known,” “Sharing is caring,” “Secrets are lies,” and “Privacy is theft.” Their main goal is eliminating privacy in the world so nothing goes by unknown. The workers of The Circle are under constant surveillance for the public to see. Eamon Bailey, a member of the company creates cameras called “SeeChange” that are the size of a lollipop and can be placed anywhere without being noticed. The feed from the camera is broadcasted live and recorded. When presenting the cameras to the workers at The Circle he shows some cameras set up in other countries and says, “They don’t know we see them, but we do” (Eggers 88). This takes away from the people’s privacy without them even knowing. The politicians and some of the workers choose to wear these cameras around their necks so everything they do and say can be seen by everyone. Everything is recorded and there is no privacy. They are completely transparent and have no privacy. All of the people in the society think The Circle is the best and their ideas are great. No one sees any problem with the direction The Circle is heading.

 Mae gets hired to work at The Circle and when she starts working there, she can’t believe how perfect and amazing it is. After some time she realizes it isn’t as great as she realized, but still loves it. She has to participate in many activities on campus, join clubs or groups, post about what she does and include pictures and she gets a number rating based on how much she participates in the community of The Circle. Her ex-boyfriend Mercer can see that The Circle is taking away the privacy of the people and wants nothing to do with it. He is the only character in the story, besides Mae’s parents, who doesn’t agree with what The Circle is doing. In a letter he wrote to Mae he says, “You people are creating a world of ever present daylight, and I think it will burn us alive” (Eggers 548). Mercer chooses to no longer be in contact with Mae and move to the woods to enjoy what little privacy he has. All of the people see the exchanges between Mar and Mercer and know he is against The Circle. They send Mae comments about how bad he is and that it is good that she left him.

 Mae presents a new technology called “SoulSearch” to the workers of The Circle which can find anyone in a matter of minutes through cameras and the help of the people in the society. To demonstrate she decides to find Mercer. People start using their phones to tell her where they last saw him and posting pictures and videos. Eventually they find the house Mercer is staying at and a crowd of people rush up to him and bombard him. He drives away in his truck with people broadcasting for Mae to see and hear. The people are chanting Mercer’s name and chasing him and Mae releases drone’s to follow him, which leads him to drive off a bridge and kill himself. His death was broadcasted to everyone in the world and not one person saw a problem with it. People just viewed Mercer as stubborn and outdated for not wanting to be a part of The Circle. The people only saw him through the lens of The Circle and thought is beliefs and actions were ridiculous. This made his death seem like nothing and didn’t alarm anyone that other people could do what Mercer did if they didn’t want to be a part of The Circle. The Circle just brushes off his death and makes excuses for why he did so they don’t look bad.

 Another main element of the story is the loss of privacy and freedom. The Circle keeps creating new technologies that are advanced and limit the amount of privacy that the people have. Eventually, when The Circle is complete, people will have no privacy or freedom. Everything that is done will be monitored and recorded and saved. No one will get away with anything and will be living under constant surveillance.   

 The Circle starts out as a perfect place that seems too good to be true, but as the story progresses it is clear that there is unhappiness. The Circle is trying to make the world transparent and have absolutely no privacy. Everyone seems to think what The Circle is doing is a great idea, except Mercer. Mercer represents the people that don’t agree with The Circle and what may happen to them if they are forced to be a part of it. The story results in unhappiness for Mercer who commits suicide and for Mae who looses her friend and was the cause of his death.

 The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin begins as a utopian society but one factor changes it to be dystopian. The story opens up in the city of Omelas where the people are celebrating the Festival of Summer and it describes the perfect society where everyone is happy. The people of Omelas are described as “bland utopians” (Le Guin 2). What people don’t know is that there is a child suffering at the cost of their happiness. A child is kept in a basement behind a locked door and no windows. The floor is dirt and the room is dirty. The child is neglected and given very little food and water. It is terrified of everything and has no understanding of time. “It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half‐bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually” (Le Guin 4). The child is neglected and forced to live in horrid conditions. Everyone in the city knows of the child’s existence and some even go to see it, but no one is allowed to say anything nice to the child. The narrator says, “…they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their mak‐ ers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery” (Le Guin 4). The only reason the utopia is possible is because of the suffering of one innocent child. “To choose between torturing a child and destroying one’s society (which includes other children) is a diabolical choice, not a human one” (Sobeloff). The people who choose to stay in Omelas choose to torture a child and be happy than to ruin their society. “Utopian accomplishment is suggested in the city’s glorious public buildings, even as the dark basement houses the secret sufferer” (Khanna 48). The utopia continues to function perfectly and keep everyone happy at the expense of a child living miserably. When young children and adults see the child suffering, they feel terrible and want to help it but they can’t. If the child were brought into the daylight and fed and cleaned then the city of Omelas would be destroyed.  Those who see the child and feel bad for it go home and think that there is no point in the child regaining its freedom because it is “too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy” (Le Guin 5). While that is true, it is still very unfair that the child has to live in those conditions in the first place. Those who are very unhappy about the situation choose to leave Omelas and not return. “Unlike Omelites, these future children need not choose silent acquiescence in deliberate oppression for the sake of “utopian” happiness, nor a lonely exile into the unknown” (Khanna 55). The children are the future of the Omelas and need to speak up and fight for the freedom of the child even if the happiness of the utopia is diminished. Judy Sobeloff said, “We cynical modern westerners can hardly conceive of a place unburdened by guilt, and it is still harder for us to conceive of a place where people freely renounce happiness which is based on a moral wrong.” The Omelas utopia is only happy because of the suffering of a child, which is very wrong. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas fits into the tradition that has been discussed in class because it shows the unhappiness in a utopia that is supposed to be a perfect society. It is similar to The Circle because it shows a perfect utopian society, but behind it there is someone or many people who are suffering and unhappy, like Mercer and the child in the basement. This makes both stories dystopian because not everyone the society agrees with choices being made and are not content. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas was published in 1973. During this time America was involved in the Vietnam War which caused a large amount of domestic disorder. As a result of the war, there was a movement called counterculture that took place. During this time young adults believed to build a society similar to a utopia with happiness and peace. This piece reflects the events taking place during this time period.

Like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, Thomas More’s Utopia seems like the perfect society, but there is unhappiness in both. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas seems like a different version of Thomas More’s Utopia that focuses on different aspects. Thomas More’s Utopia focuses on the politics and social organization, while The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas focuses on the children of the Omelas and that one child suffering is the only reason for everyone’s happiness. More’s Utopia focused on many specific points, but Ursula K. Le Guin doesn’t mention anything about politics or government, just hints that there was no king. Both stories have qualities that make a perfect society, but there are certain factors in each that cause unhappiness to some.

To teach the main elements of a utopia or a utopia similar to The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, I would have my students read Thomas More’s Utopia because it is the first piece that was written about what a utopia is and how it affects society. I think it was very helpful in understanding what a utopia is, especially having no prior knowledge about them. I would also use The Circle by Dave Eggers because it shows how the author incorporates a message into the novel. Dave Eggers main focus throughout the story was about the loss of privacy for the people of the utopia. Through this, he was hinting to our society today that if we keep moving the way we are, we will also lose all of our privacy and live in a transparent world. These texts add could add different insights to a course on utopia and dystopia because they all focus on different parts of a society and send different messages based on what the author believes. From studying these texts, it can be learned that there is no way to achieve a perfect society where every single person is happy. There is no possible way to please every single person that lives in a society at the same time. Utopias are impossible to achieve without there being some form of unhappiness.            

Works Cited

  • Eggers, Dave. The Circle. Large Print Press, a Part of Gale, Cengage Learning, 2013.
  • Khanna, Lee Cullen. “Beyond Omelas: Utopia and Gender.” Utopian Studies: Journal of the Society for Utopian Studies, vol. 2, no. 1–2, 1991, pp. 48–58. EBSCOhost
  • Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” Aspen Institute, assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/files/content/upload/Ursula_K_Le_Guin_AIF_Scholars_2009.pdf.
  • Moore, Wilbert E. “The Utility of Utopias.” American Sociological Review, vol. 31, no. 6, 1966, pp. 765–772. JSTOR.
  • Sobeloff, Judy. “An overview of ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’.” Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2002. Literature Resource Center
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