Perspective in the Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin
Reading a story by Ursula Le Guin is like watching a poignant movie unfold on screen: captivating and intriguing, a tale that is not simply about inciting reactions but also about finding meaning behind words and images. Le Guin forces the reader to partake in the story. One cannot simply read “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” or “Findings;” these stories must be inhaled and experienced. Therefore, perspective in Le Guin’s stories is of the utmost importance because, in order to achieve such a reaction from her readers, the author must write so that the reader can see from the perspective of the characters and feel their emotions intensely.
In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” the reader is thrown into a seemingly unbelievable world where the people’s total and incorruptible happiness, one that is “no vapid, irresponsible happiness,” (Le Guin 458) is due completely to the dismal existence of one malnourished, mistreated little boy. The people of Omelas must come to understand that if they help the boy, they will condemn their beautiful city to a quick demise. They either accept this fact, or they walk away from Omelas.
Le Guin uses a 3rd person omniscient perspective in “Omelas” that drifts at times to 1st person when she addresses her audience, as if she were reading the story aloud to a large group: “How can I tell you about the people of Omelas? They were not naïve and happy children - though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! but I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you. Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all.” (455). This technique makes the reader feel like they can truly see the city of Omelas and that they can understand why the people who reside there are able to live so happily even when they know the reason for their happiness.
The utilization of perspective in Le Guin’s fiction is best emphasized by this quote from Norman Friedman: “Here ‘omniscience’ signifies literally a completely unlimited - and hence difficult to control - perspective. The story may be seen from any or all angles at will: from a godlike vantage point beyond time and place, from the center, the periphery, or front. There is nothing to keep the author from choosing any of them, or from shifting from one to the other as often or rarely as [s]he pleases.” (1171). Friedman unknowingly captures the essence of Le Guin’s writing perfectly. She has created a world that the reader can picture despite the unreality of its content. By writing in the style in which she has, and from the perspective that she has, Le Guin has successfully made the feeling of emotion, into an art form. The author does the same in another of her stories: “Findings.”
In “Findings,” Le Guin takes the idea of perspective and includes it in the story…literally. She describes a set of stories written by a two unidentified people, stories that seem at first to be completely unrelated but really have a lot of parallels. They center on the desire of people to amount to something more than what their parents were, to travel and to experience things, and to escape from the lives they led previously. “Findings” also focuses on relationships, namely those between mother and daughter, and between father and son. The author portrays these relationships by letting each character write his or her own story.
Le Guin includes terms describing perspective right in “Findings”: “She wrote a story in the past tense” (163), “He writes a story in the present tense” (164), “The first person singular travels all over the world” (165). The story itself is told in 3rd person, but the characters’s stories are always in 1st or 2nd. The author’s use of perspective in this story is not as simple as in other stories. By switching between perspectives so often, she is able to incite different reactions in the reader. The reader’s feelings evolve with the timeline of the story - past, present, future - and they are able to truly be inside the character’s head by the last line of the story: “And all the time I write, she writes, I will be at home, where you have always been. We know where to find each other.” (166). The reader confusion and anger at the fact that the devoted son is the cause of his father’s death. One feels pity for the little girl who is forced to do “more than can be done” (163) and sadness for the mother who must watch her daughter waste away.
It’s difficult to determine what sort of feeling a reader is supposed to have in reaction to Le Guin’s words. Pity, perhaps? Anger? Sadness, relief, joy? The point of her stories is not to make the reader feel a certain emotion; they are not meant to be persuasive, or to teach a certain lesson. They are meant to be fiction, and the reader should feel, in general, that they have been influenced, or even changed, by the story. In an interview titled “Steering Her Craft: An Interview with Ursula Le Guin,” the master of perspective stated:
“There are different ways of thinking, being, and doing things. Both science fiction and fantasy offer more options. They let you think through an alternative without actually having to do it. Which, I think, is really one of the functions of all fiction - to let you live other lives and see what they’re like. It widens the soul…There is a sort of attitude ‘we don’t have to do it this way!’ It opens some doors that have been shut.” (1).
Le Guin does this especially in “Omelas.” The reader is allowed to see into a completely different world from their own and can attempt to understand it. Though one can never truly experience the intense emotion that the characters in “Omelas” do, by being made aware of them they can start to feel more strongly about events in their own life.
In conclusion, the various ways in which Ursula Le Guin uses perspective in her stories, in particular “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and “Findings,” are very effective in eliciting strong emotions in her readers. One can feel the powerful emotion in her words because she is able to use the technique of perspective to her advantage. For Le Guin, simple 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person will not do; she must experiment with all forms of perspective and not be constrained by the limitations of any one form. After experiencing this, the reader is forced to answer positively the question Le Guin poses in “Omelas,” after the deplorable condition of the little boy is revealed: “Now do you believe in them? Are they not more credible?” (458).
Friedman, Norman. “perspective in Fiction: The Development of a Critical Concept.” PMLA Vol. 70, No. 5. (Dec., 1955). 1171.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Interview with Faith Justice. Steering Her Craft: An Interview with Ursula Le Guin. 2000.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “Findings.” Unlocking the Air and Other Stories. New York: Harper Perennial, 1996. 163-166.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Eds. Richard Bausch and R.V. Cassill. New York: Norton, 2006. 454- 458.