Since one of the main descriptions of satire is the use of vivid language that clearly depicts painful, bizarre, foolish, and wicked events and people in order to make an audience aware of how blinded or insensitive or numb we can become to the truths in which we often must overlook to get through our day. Okay, that opens a can of worms that I will actually dig into.
Let’s jump right into an example, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” one of my favorite stories to teach for the satire unit.
Ursula K. Le Guin does an excellent job of crafting this magnificent place, and she does so straight away with her first lines:
With the clamor of bells that set the swallows soring, the Festival of Summer came to the city of Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. The rigging of the boats in harbor sparkled with flags. In the streets between houses with red roofs and painted walls, between old miss-grown gardens and under avenues of trees, past great parks and public buildings, processions moved.
An old woman, small, fat, and laughing, is passing out flowers from a basket, and tall young men wear her flowers in their shining hair. A child of nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd, alone, playing on a wooden flute. People pause to listen, and they smile, but they do not speak to him, for he never ceases playing and never sees them, his dark eyes wholly rapt in the sweet, thin magic of the tune.
Both create a sense of awe, of fairy tale, or a utopia, which is what Le Guin works for six pages to make us believe in—something more unbelievable than a fairy tale. Utopias cannot exist. Especially not on a large scale.
And that, my friends, is her point. She often asks the reader, “Do you believe me now?”
Then, she drops this bomb on us, more vivid than any of her previous imagery:
Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.
In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is. The room is about three aces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the buck and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked and nobody will come…but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. ‘I will be good,’ it says. ‘Please let me out. I will be good!’
Although may lessons can be taken by the way she sets up the trajectory of the story, the largest impact comes in comparing that first child, the flue player, with the child in the closet. Le Guin lays out the rules, without that single sacrifice, that boy wouldn’t have been so blissfully wrapped in the tune of his flute.
In fact, the entire city would fall apart, and so would its people:
If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing indeed; but if it were one, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grave of every life in Omleas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the change of the happiness of one…
I hope the point is obvious. Since utopia means something different for all of us, when one is enacted, there will always be someone who is oppressed and violated. Someone will always suffer so that others can have more.
I, of course, use this in class to talk about all types of things, like child slave labor and bad business practices of big conglomerates. But it also allows me to force their hand, to make them look at their bad behavior, at all of ours, because those conglomerates wouldn’t be so big if we didn’t buy their products. But when Le Guin makes that connection between the children, she is describing us—those of us with the easy connection to the internet, who carry computers around in our pockets, drive our own cars to work or school, have more food than we can eat in a week, those of us who have to work fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty ours a week to have a little more than the bare minimum.
She is also talking about the rich and powerful, too, don’t let me distract from that, but they aren’t reading this story. My students are, and they have to know that those luxuries are available to us because of that eight-year-old digging in a field to extract cocoa and coffee beans. Those people who try to jump to their deaths from the top floor of a third-world factory, making our leading brand of phones, because they’re treated so poorly—only to be caught in nets and rolled right back into work.
We buy those products and fuel those businesses. We vote with our dollar, but most of us do not think about it.
We’re distracted by those toys, by the hustle to be successful, to make more money, to live an easier life. Because it’s hard to do. It makes sense that we don’t stop to think about it, and when we do, we feel the pull of that game on our phone, that social media feed, that cat video. We can’t do anything as a single person amongst billions.
That’s why Le Guin names the story after her brilliant ending. There are ones that walk away from the city because they can’t live with their happiness hinging on someone else’s misery.
If you get the chance to read the full story, I encourage you to. Her ability to so vividly describe this place and this problem makes it rich with connections and layers of meaning. And that’s what vividness should do for a satirical text—highlight their point and infuriate their readers.
Have you had a vivid description impact you in this way? Let me know about it in the comments below.