Law and Literature
27 February 2013
Trapped by Society
In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin, “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and Antigone by Sophocles people suffer for the benefit of the community. In Omelas, “the wretched one” (Le Guin 5) – a feeble-minded child – is locked in a basement to guarantee the happiness of the city. In the story Harrison Bergeron, Harrison is handicapped to look like “Halloween and hardware” (Vonnegut 55) so that he will be equal to everyone else. Finally in the tragedy Antigone, Antigone is forbidden to bury her brother so that Polyneices can be displayed as an example of the consequence of civil disobedience. In each of these writings, as a result of the rationalization or the obedience of the majority to the rules, positive law traps people, infringing upon the natural rights of individuals for the supposed interest of the populace.
In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, the imprisonment and suffering of a child is accepted because it is advantageous for the society. The city of Omelas is perfect with one fundamental flaw, “their happiness… depend[s] wholly on this child’s abominable misery” (Le Guin 5) – the anguish of an imbecile condemned to a dark basement. There is nothing that can be done for this child because “all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed” (Le Guin 5) if even a kind word is spoken to it. Consequently, the child “sits in its own excrement continually,” (Le Guin 4) denied its natural rights to life and liberty. Natural law is an unwritten, universal moral code derived from nature, and it is inherent to all humanity – even those in Omelas. Therefore, when the citizens see the conditions of the child for the first time “they feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations” (Le Guin 5). Each individual recognizes that the conditions of the child are intrinsically unjust, yet even with the outpour of emotion the child remains captive. Ironically, the “one thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt” (Le Guin 3). Everyone who stays eventually rationalizes the child’s situation – “to exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement [releasing the child]… that would be to let guilt within the walls” (Le Guin 5) of the city. The culpability of each citizen is a melancholy that pervades in Omelas, but it is buried under rationalization – each person accepts that he can do nothing to change the terms of Omelas. This knowledge is “the true source of the splendor of their lives” (Le Guin 5). The people are happy, because they know the child is suffering for their happiness. On the other hand, this information is a responsibility the people of Omelas must carry, and it traps the citizens – like the child, no one is really free. There is no room for “vapid, irresponsible happiness” (Le Guin 5), no room for “naïve and happy children” (Le Guin 2), no room for truly carefree joy. Instead, their “happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary” (Le Guin 2). The people of Omelas believe that for such happiness, the condition of the “wretched one” (Le Guin 5) is a necessary foundation of the community.
In the story “Harrison Bergeron”, people unquestioningly obey the laws of society, which consequently degrades of the gifted, but moreover, it traps the entire population in a cycle of complacency. In the year 2081, everybody in the United States becomes equal. In this dystopia, positive law – “the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution” (Vonnegut 53) duly enacted by the people – dictates that everyone should have the same handicaps. For example, people who have a higher than average intelligence are required by law to wear “a little mental handicap radio… [to keep them] from taking unfair advantage of their brains” (Vonnegut 53). The positive laws emplaced by this society are in...