Suffering and Utopia in “The Book of Martha”, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, and “A Party Down at the Square”





Suffering and Utopia in “The Book of Martha”, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, and “A Party Down at the Square”

The short stories, “The Book of Martha”, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, and “A Party Down at the Square”, expose the dystopian imperfections and frailty associated with human nature. The first narrative, written by Octavia Butler, explores this imperfection by looking at the flawed nature of religion despite its radical influences on humanity. Consequently, the second narrative dwells on the society’s consistent yet fantasy-based inclinations towards utopia. In the story, Ursula K. Le Guin examines the flaws of the American society specifically in relation to the false representation that the United States paints while concealing the murkiness that exists within the respective society. Lastly, the following narrative by Ralph Ellison provides a glimpse of the inhumanity of society due to the differences that exist among its inhabitants. Hence, in one way or another, each narrative assesses the imperfections of the society by looking at the different aspects that denote this fact. In this case though, the narratives’ focus on the fallibility of human nature is specifically aimed at the utopian-based suffering that the characters experience due to the dystopian nature of the society.

The form of suffering that the characters experience in the narratives is specifically based on the dystopian nature of the contemporary or actual society. One noteworthy fact regarding the three short stories involves the concerns that the authors raise regarding the society as well as humanity. Specifically, the dystopias expressed in the stories comprise ways in which the authors assert their concerns regarding social dimensions. For instance, Le Guin expresses her dissatisfaction with humanity by illustrating the cruelty or suffering that takes place in the perfect community of Omelas against the character of the small child. The manner in which she offers a paradoxical illustration of Omelas highlights an even grander view of the occurrences and inhumane practices that occur in the society for purposes of facilitating the greater good. This is simply an example of the extent to which the characters’ suffering is closely connected to the utopian façades and the dystopian traits that underlie the societies exhibited in all of the narratives under analysis.

Consequently, with the suffering based particularly on the maintenance of a utopian society, one of the ways in which affliction is explored in the short stories is based particularly on the cruelty that the character suffers. In Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, the society of Omelas is represented as a utopian community. For the most part, the story is comprised of descriptions of the respective town that assert its beauty due to the presence of lush watery meadows, numerous gardens, as well as gorgeous snow-capped mountains that border the city (Le Guin 27). Aside from this, the families are happy due to the lack of difficulties. However, this is merely a façade aimed at concealing the darkness that takes place in the community. In description, the utopian society is viewed as if does not have sins or problems that afflict the land. Nonetheless, in reality, pain as well as suffering is evidenced by the tribulations of a small child.

Regarding the small child, the author does not specify on its gender. This disinclination from sexual orientation illustrates the unbiased nature of suffering. In the story, the tribulations that the child faces are particularly for a good cause. Simply, it suffers in order for the inhabitants that occupy Omelas to have a perfect utopian town. Additionally, the child lives in pain and in darkness since it cannot see the light of the sun (Le Guin 34). In fact, the child once lived a happy life. However, its placement in the town was imperative in ensuring that the rest of the civilians experience a faultless and undisturbed way of life. The inhumanity of the society towards the child’s suffering is evidenced by its negligent attitude towards it. The members of the community are aware of the tribulations that the child faces. However, none of them cares about alleviating it from its predicament. After all, in its isolation and pain, the child facilitates the happiness of the society in Omelas. 

The aspect of cruelty as a form of suffering is also evidenced in Ralph Ellison’s “A Party Down at the Square”. In the narrative, the black man is the epitome of suffering. Similar to the child in Le Guin’s narrative, the said character goes through affliction in order to continue facilitating society’s standards. In this case, the African American character undergoes a cruel and repulsive demise. Accordingly, African American persons living in the respective setting of the story (an unfamiliar town in Alabama) were normally killed as asserted by one of the characters (the uncle). Ironically and crudely shocking, it was particularly normal for the townspeople to burn black men in this society. While telling another character (the boy) about the ritual, the uncle acknowledges that the townspeople normally burn two of them in order to rouse fear in the other black folk occupying the respective setting. Analytically, the burning of African Americans is a dystopian act aimed at maintaining the utopian state of the said community.

Even though the uncle is not repulsed by the burning, the boy and the third character (unnamed narrator) are disgusted by the act. For the black man, the reasons that led to his predicament are unknown. In fact, the said character was treated in similarity to an animal. Regardless of his bravery as asserted by the narrator, the black man was unequal to the rest of the townspeople baying for his blood. Even as he states his last requests while burning at the stake, none of the civilians notice his humanity. For instance, he asks, “Will one of you gentlemen please cut my throat? Will somebody cut my throat like a Christian?” (Ellison 3). Despite this, the response of the crowd to the murder of the character is a form of amusement for them. Moreover, the bigotry is considerably ingrained to the point that the civilians project null remorse or empathy towards the man as he incinerates.

The suffering and eventual death of the black man functions as a means of maintaining the society’s standards of stability. Corresponding to the child in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, the black man is the ultimate sacrifice. In order for the society to be stable, he is used as a scapegoat as a means to an end. However, the cruelty directed towards him illustrates the dystopian nature of the society due to its inhumanity. The lynching of the respective character shows the repugnance of humanity generally and the lack of concern towards dimensions such as social class and skin color. The inaction of the townspeople towards the suffering of the black character overall illustrate the fallibility of human nature. This is considerably similar to the society’s ignorance and negligence of the trials faced by the child. Such indifference towards suffering clearly illustrates the inhumane temperaments of humankind itself.

Nevertheless, in “The Book of Martha”, the form of suffering that the character faces reverts to the notion of maintaining a utopian society. Unlike the characters in the previously discussed narratives, the protagonist, Martha, does not undergo any form of cruelty. However, the trial that she encounters involves implementing a decision that will determine the future course of humanity. However, for her to assume such a considerable role, the conditions of her life are altered and made uncomfortable. Even though the author does not specifically disrupt the society that Martha has developed for herself via an external threat, she merely expels her from the terms of her personal life and makes her responsible for the new conditions that she presently inhabits. In this respect, her responsibility is challenged when God asks her to make decisions that will affect all humanity irreversibly.

The decision-making responsibility that Martha attains is possibly one of the greatest forms of suffering that she encounters in comparison to other characters. Simply, the fact that her decision imposes an irreversible repercussion on humanity as well as her own life is truly a burden. Hence, while thinking of ways through which humanity can learn to co-exist in peace and love with one another, God tells her that she has to “live among them again as one of their lowliest” (Butler 26). In this respect, the hardworking efforts that she had amassed over the years in order to get out of the socio-economic predicaments that she encountered as a child were completely irrelevant further adding to the turmoil of her newly found role as a god. In order to maintain a utopian society, Martha was required to sacrifice her comfort and success.

In conclusion, the concepts of utopia and dystopia have been explored considerably in literature. The narratives, “The Book of Martha”, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, and “A Party Down at the Square” are valid illustrations of such explorations. In this case, the authors utilize such concepts in order to address the façade associated with the textual utopia. Nevertheless, the authors show that achieving a utopia is difficult and impossible due to the dystopian tendencies that exist beneath due to the fallible nature of humanity. One of the ways that the writers show this perspective involves the suffering that the characters face. In order to maintain a sense of utopia, the characters undergo tribulations that further the utilitarian need of social stability and perfection in the end. However, in an effort to illustrate the false nature of the utopia, the suffering that the characters undergo clearly shows the frail nature of human beings.

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia. “The Book of Martha.” American Letters & Commentary #16. Ed. Anna Raibowitz. Brooklyn: American Letters and Commentary, 2004. 23-41. Print.

Ellison, Ralph. “A Party Down at the Square.” 2015. Microsoft Word file.

Le Guin, U. K. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Mankato: Creative Education, 1973. Print.

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