From the very beginning of Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story the reader is introduced to an insouciant, euphoric and exuberant way of living in the utopic city of Omelas. People are dancing carelessly in the summer festival that is taking place, whilst nature is also participating in the festivity with its clean air, “dark blue skies” (Le Guin 1), “broad green meadows” (1) and even horses cannot contain their excitement.
Up until this point of the narrative one could easily start wondering why is there a need to engage in a critical post-humanist reading of the text since it is not only the humans that thrive and prosper but also the animals. However, if one takes a closer look at the short story she will realize that the first and only animals that are mentioned within in it are the horses and this happens because they are “the only animal who has adopted our ceremonies as his own” (1).
In other words, the animalistic element is granted a place in the text simply because it can be anthropomorphized and because it is the human that can account for its existence. Nevertheless, the narrator informs us that the inhabitants of the city “did not keep slaves. They were not barbarians” (1); an admission that discloses the underlying suggestion that humanity is to be considered barbarian only when domesticating fellow-humans, thus exempting any other species from this potential cruelty.
The allegorical nature of the story is laid bare when the narrator explicitly states that “they were not less complex than us (my emphasis)” (1) in an attempt to defend their happiness which can be interpreted as naivete or stupidity. Yet, she/he argues that their and subsequently our (evidently pointing to humanity as a whole) intellectual capacity is by no means to be viewed as inferior and in this vein makes an appeal to human megalomania and belief in individual self-importance. Happiness embodies the community’s utmost goal which is ultimately a self-serving end that is a based on a hierarchy of discrimination starting from “what is necessary, [proceeding to] what is neither necessary nor destructive [and concluding to] what is destructive” (2). In this sense, the end of human contentment justifies the means that may be employed in the process.
“What else belongs in the joyous city? The sense of victory, surely, the celebration of courage” (2), the narrative voice ironically proclaims and implicitly mocks the seamless venue of optimism and advancement that Humanism allegedly epitomizes. By referring to the presence of “the finest and fairest souls of all men (my emphasis) everywhere” (2) he alludes to the elitist conceptualization of civilization and culture as comprising of the best of the best (Matthew Arnold). The citizens are presented as celebrating the victory of life which further highlights the humanist tradition that has placed bios and human life above all.
As Neil Badmington postulates about humanism in his entry on posthumanism in the Routledge Companion to Literature and Science(2011): “the human being occupies a natural and eternal place at the very center of things, where it is distinguished absolutely from machines, animals, and other inhuman entities; where it shares with all other human beings a unique essence; where it is the origin of meaning and the sovereign subject of history…. In the humanist account, human beings are exceptional, autonomous and set above the world that lies at their feet” (374). Furthermore, the fact that these “fairest and finest souls” (Le Guin 2) belong to men points to an intraspecies hierarchy and more specifically to the androcentricity of the movement, let alone its subjugation of other species or of those considered inferior.
Towards the end of the story though another element is revealed that taints the initial atmosphere of uncontained joy. The reader is informed that the city’s progress is dependent upon the misery of a single child, thus echoing how humanist civilization is not so benign or benevolent as one would like to imagine but implicates atrocities and obscenities. The citizens of Omelas are presented as fully aware of the horrors but consciously evading them. This in turn broaches the issue of blissful ignorance in pressing issues (such as animal rights) that Humanism often chooses to belittle with its celebratory portrayals of humanist achievement instead. “The ones who walk away from Omelas” (4) exist though too and they are the ones who make a conscious decision of becoming something other than human (at least other than the way Humanism is currently defined).