Identity, what it means to be one’s self or a part of a larger whole, has often been presented differently in different literary works; Take, for example, Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and Tomson Highway’s play “The Rez Sisters”. In “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, Le Guin describes a conflict between the harsh and sometimes contradicting “truths” of a society, and the values that one believes in. On the other hand in “The Rez Sisters”, Highway takes a bit of a reversed approach. He details the journey of a group of individuals to find meaning and identity in their collective, or community. I will explore both of these literary works, and see how the narrative and form of these two stories set their presentations of identity apart from each other.
The form of the stories impact how identity is presented significantly due to the difference in how information is received by the audience. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” is a short story, therefore it will have less words than a play or a novel, and must make the impact of it’s individual sections weight a lot more on the reader’s mind than other forms. That is why the main conflict in the story is so sudden and aggressive. In fact, after four large paragraphs describing the wonders of Omelas and the joys of its people, the narrator suddenly addresses the reader and asks “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing”(Le Guin 107). Note the last part of the quote where the narrator asks to let them “describe one more thing”, this is important because typically in conversations or stories, the last thing said is usually the most important idea. By utilizing this last part, Le Guin is able to shift the tone from a joyful, light-hearted tone, to a darker more serious one very, very quickly. This also shifts the story’s focus to what is written after this quote and place importance not on what “Omelas” is, as that was what the first four paragraphs were about, but on who the people of Omelas are, as well as why some choose to walk away from it all.
On the other hand, Tomson Highway’s “The Rez Sisters” is a play, this gives it a longer amount of time to tell the story, as well as the added freedom of having actors who able to do actions to express emotions and vary their voices to change audience interpretation of a certain line. This is significant because this takes away the need use large portions of the text to stress the importance on the core idea of the story, and instead allows Highway to put effort into building well-flushed characters with copious amounts of detail. As such, Highway is able to construct his story like a journey, like something that builds onto itself overtime as opposed to the world-building to quick build-up to conflict template that Le Guin makes use of in “The Ones Who Walks Away From Omelas”. An example of the care that Highway puts into molding his characters is demonstrated in the big fight scene at the end of act I, where six of the seven main characters end up yelling insults at each other. From just this interaction, the audience is able to gain a general sense of personality for each character – Pelajia being bold and demanding towards everyone else, Emily being quick to anger and aggressive with her speech, Veronique’s love of minding other people’s business, Annie’s energized way of doing things, Marie-Adele’s motherly nature, and even Zhaboonigan, who doesn’t partake in the fight, shows the side of her that was hurt and ran away(Highway 44-46). This level of detail in each person’s identity, combined with the visual input of witnessing the actors take these personalities and clashing them against each other in real time enables Highway to flesh out his characters first, and then build a community out of these characters throughout the rest of the play.
In Highway’s “The Rez Sisters”, the identity of a society is both portrayed to be defined by the people in it, and portrayed to be changing as the individuals that make up that society changes. This is one of the core ideas that “The Rez Sisters” talks about. In the beginning of the play, the audience sees the individual characters, but probably isn’t familiar with First Nations culture and is therefore unaware of the identity of the society, although they will know that some type of society exists. This is evident in one of the conversations about bingo where a character, Annie, states that “All us Wasy Women, We’ll march […] all the way to Espanola, where the bingos are bigger and better”(Highway 15). This quote comes from the very beginning of the play when the audience has only just been introduced to the characters, and is still unfamiliar with them. At this point, it is evident that there is some sort of community, but it is unclear as to exactly what the identity of that community is – there is no meaning behind the term “Wasy Women” yet. This is a stark contrast to the end of the play, after witnessing these seven very unique women put aside their problems with each other and work towards their common goal of attending the bingo in Toronto, after seeing Marie-Adele pass away and listening to Pelajia’s actress remark that “When some fool of a being goes and puts us Indians plunk down in the middle of this old earth, […] I figure we gotta make the most of it while we’re here”(Highway 105). It is finally apparent what “Wasy Women” are now – just these seven, now six, Indian women playing bingo and trying to make the best out of what they were given, and despite losing a member so recently, these women would still push on with laughter until death do them apart, because that is just what their community is.
Different from the identity of a community being defined by its individual parts, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” suggests that the individual is defined by the society, a bit of a reversed approach when compared to “The Rez Sisters”. This is because Le Guin chose to describe the society first, in great detail, before even touching the individual. This is apparent by the first parts of the short story with descriptions like “[There] was no king. They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians”(Le Guin 105), talk of nude priests and priestesses experiencing the joys of flesh, and children who danced and smiled(Le Guin 106-107). No kings, swords and slaves meant there wasn’t a ruler, violence, or inequality, the nude priests and priestesses represented freedom while the children represented joy, Le Guin very clearly defines Omelas to be a Utopia of utmost beauty, a place so good that the narrator expects the reader to not believe. And so when the tone shifts and the suffering child is revealed, the short story immediately shows what the true conflict is – the choices of the young men and women who saw the child in the basement for the first time. Le Guin makes it clear that “Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, […] but as time goes one they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom”(Le Guin 109). The first part of this quote suggests that the young people are overwhelmed with feelings of guilt or disgust towards themselves, but as stated in the latter part of the quote, as time goes on these young people concede. They give in and compromise, they still feel bad about the child, but they are able to continue living in Omelas knowing the child’s existence. However, compromise is not the only route for these young people, as the narrator goes on to describe that after seeing the child, some people “[…] leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness and they do not come back”(Le Guin 110). This is creates an interesting situation unlike in “The Rez Sisters” where the society changes with the individuals, in this case, it is impossible to change the society, so the individuals are forced to change themselves – either compromise moral standards and continue living a life of joy, or to stay firm and leave into the unknown.
Identity is for me a very difficult concept to describe in words, so it is refreshing to see how different authors express it in their own works. With Ursula K. Le Guin’s beautiful demonstration of a Utopia with a price, which the individual people must decide whether or not they can accept. Using the story, Le Guin expresses the idea that the society is what defines an individual’s identity as a person. In contrast to Le Guin’s idea of identity, Tomson Highway’s play suggests that society is not something that forces change on an individual, but rather something that is built by each individual member and can change according to the changes that the members go through. With this idea, Highway crafted a masterful play about a group of individuals finding meaning in each other and making the best out of what they have. If I had more time, I would write another essay putting more emphasis on either one of the two pieces. I would just focus purely on analyzing the text and exploring how the author manages to convey their ideas, instead of taking too long and explaining their ideas along with that, which is what I have done here.
- Le Guin, Usrula K. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” The Broadview Introduction to Literature . Edited by Lisa Chalykoff et al. Concise Edition. Broadview Press, 2015. pp. 105-110. 04/03/2019.
- Highway, Tomson. “The Rez Sisters.” Fifth House Publishers, 1986. Accessed 04/03/2019.