Free will is one of those concepts that is hard to wrap your mind around. Do living things have free will, or is our existence predetermined by some higher power. Because so little is known about free will, it is commonly used as a theme in literature. Authors are free to manipulate our ideas about free will without the boundaries many other themes face due to fact or science. Two stories in which this theme is prominent are “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and I Am the Messenger. Though these stories share a common theme, Le Guin and Zusak use the malleability of free will to convey different ideas about it.
In “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, the idea of free will is used to emphasize the influence of society on morals. As a reader, one would assume that leaving the community of Omelas would be the obvious choice; however, this is not the case. Many of the citizens of Omelas happily stay with no second guesses. Which brings up the question: why do they stay when there is no force keeping them from leaving or trying to make change? The citizens have free will and know right from wrong, yet they encourage the suffering of a child. One answer to this question could be that the pressures placed on the citizens by the society in which they live has altered their morality and the pressure felt to assimilate is greater, for most, than the pressure placed on their conscience. If this is true, wouldn’t the citizen’s free will be impeded on by their own culture and peers? This powerful question brings to light a sad truth about the weakness of morality. Even more upsetting is the fact that Omelas is founded on the trust and belief that a so called societal norm can be so detrimental to a person’s free will and morals that an entire society can thrive at the expense of a helpless child. The child could be kept a secret, or the citizens of Omelas could be required to stay, but this is not so, indicating that the author, Le Guin, intended to plague the reader with the idea that free will can be revoked. The concept of revoking free will has an especially strong presence in “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” because of the child which is trapped in the closet. There is no indication that the child chose to be there or wishes to stay in the closet. This child is a slave to the citizens of Omelas, and the description of her life and how she is treated causes readers to think about the effects of not having free will can have on a person, group, or even an entire society. There is no doubt that in writing “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, Le Guin had the intention of forcing her audience to realize that this dystopian society is much more similar to our own than many of us would like to admit.
Markus Zusak, on the other hand, forces his readers to play an active role in deciding whether or not his character has any free will at all. The theme of free will is key in two points in the story. The first of which is when Daryl and Keith visit Ed for the first time. So far, Ed has been fulfilling the instructions on the cards willingly and, though he did not kill the rapist from Edgar Street, he has been doing fairly well. However, when the two wannabe hit men come to his house and threaten him with violence if he stops completing the cards, his free will is taken from him. Zusak’s motivation behind this is puzzling, especially since there was no need to take Ed’s free will away. Aside from some anxiety and fear from almost committing murder, there are no clear signs that Ed even wanted to stop. Perhaps this act was simply a way to make Ed more vulnerable; he is already a half-ass citizen who has no light at the end of his tunnel in regards to his career or his life, for that matter. Also, the reader is left wondering if Ed would have done the right thing and continued to fulfill the cards if he was never threatened. Would the burden of attempted murder cause him to stop? Or would Ed realize the good he is doing and continue on his journey? Zusak eliminated any way of knowing the answer by taking away Ed’s free will. While Ed is with Daryl and Keith, he thinks to himself, “I fall deep inside me and feel trapped. I fall through several layers of darkness, almost reaching the bottom wen a hand seems to pull me up by my throat into the pain of reality” (Zusak). The hand represents all of the elements in his life which prohibit him from becoming the nonexistent citizen he clearly has the ability and motivation to be. The elements which are pulling him back into reality are the cards which are forcing him to play and active, beneficial role in society, Audrey who keeps Ed emotionally alive, and the few other people in his life who seem to care, such as his mother, his friends, and the doorman. If taking away Ed’s free will is a ploy to make him even more vulnerable and easy to manipulate, then Zusak could be setting Ed up for the second instance in which free will plays a major role. As the book is coming to a close and Ed’s life is finally falling into place, the reader is plunged into a realm of literature which is not often explored by writers: Ed becomes self-aware. Ed meets the author, Mark Zusak, and has a conversation about life, it’s meaning, and if Ed is even real. After Ed completes the cards and receives the joker, he slowly begins to figure out the next chapter of his life. In the cab he realizes that the bank robber was right at the trial, he was a dead man inside, and now he is truly living. Finally, after he receives the folder of his life and reflects on what he has been through, it dawns on him that his next chapter is not written yet and it is his responsibility to make sure that it is worth reading. He discovers that though the cards took his free will away, once he completes his tasks, he has the free will to live a much better life.
“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and I Am the Messenger share the theme of free will, but even more so, the authors of these two works seem to have similar points to get across to their readers. For example, both authors illustrate circumstances in which free will can be taken away by others. In “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, the influence of the society in which the people live impedes on their ability to make sound decisions and pursue the life they ultimately know is right. Also, the child whose only free will is confined to the activities she can perform in a closet, demonstrates the torture and agony which is inflicted upon any person whose free will is taken away. Similarly, when Ed’s free will is taken away, it causes him to question the good deeds he has been doing. When someone is threatened to do something, the act the person is forced to perform is rarely a good one; this concept is what causes Ed to rethink what he has gotten himself into. There is also Newton’s third law, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; it is human nature to rebel or fight back whenever one is forced to do anything. This reaction can come in the form of violence, fleeing, or, in Ed’s case, doubt, confusion, and skepticism. Through his reaction, the reader is subjected to the mental battle a person is subjected to when free will is revoked. Both authors communicate the ramifications of the loss of free will in their own ways, and in turn, give the reader a broader look at the theme.
Though these authors convey similar points, there are many differences in the two works and how they convey their message. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” portrays a dystopian society in which all happiness is derived from the agony of one child. In using a fictional society which is hard for a reader to imagine, Le Guin may not have been able to create the emotional and mental struggle she intended her readers to feel. By placing her story in a place which is so different from anything her audience has ever seen, some readers may perceive not only the setting and story as fictional, but also the message. On the other hand, Zusak conveyed his message through a relatable character who lives in a society similar to many of his readers. By using a more believable setting and character, it is easier for Markus Zusak to convey his message to his audience. Another difference can be found in what aspects about free will the authors focused on. Le Guin emphasized the influence of society on free will and the moral and physical implications the loss of free will can have on a person; she does this by describing the child in such graphic detail and writing about the people who do choose to leave at the very end, as if they were a side note. One almost gets the sense that in Omelas, the ones who leave are so misunderstood that the citizens could care less if the ones who leave return because of the brief portion of the text that is dedicated to them and the mystery that shrouds them; it is as if no one ever took the time to care where sons, daughters, mothers or fathers went. Zusak, however, focused on the existence of free will, or lack thereof, by having Ed become self-aware and question it himself. Throughout I Am the Messenger, Ed’s free will is taken and returned, but Zusak throws the reader for a loop when he reveals that Ed is nothing more than a character in his book. The entire novel has been Zusak sending Ed cards and controlling the story; now, one may think that the previous statement is an obvious one: clearly the author controls the story and makes the character do things. However, while reading a novel, readers often forget that behind this thrilling story is a man at a computer typing it all up, and perceive it as an actual account of Ed’s life. When the reader is so abruptly thrown back into the reality of the situation, it causes them to reconsider what is real and what is fiction, what is free will and what is pre-planned for us. Through this non-conventional tactic, Zusak conveys his story in a way that stays with the reader for some time and invokes deep thought about free will.
Both Markus Zusak and Ursula K. Le Guin use what little is known about free will and shape their readers’ minds through a powerful story about a utopian society which, upon further inspection, is in fact dystopian and a novel about a learning to live his life and take his free will back. These narratives not only convey powerful messages about free will, but cause the reader to create their own ideas and philosophies about free will as well. Using vastly different ideas, settings, and characters, Zusak and Le Guin illustrate the power of free will and the consequences of losing it.
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