Literature

A Summary and Analysis of Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Day Before the Revolution’

‘The Day Before the Revolution’ is a 1974 short story by the American fantasy and science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018). The story is a prologue – indeed, a prequel – to Le Guin’s ‘ambiguous utopia’ novel The Dispossessed. ‘The Day Before the Revolution’ focuses on the last day in the life of Odo, the woman who had led the revolution that established the anarchist society depicted in The Dispossessed.

‘The Day Before the Revolution’: plot summary

In her collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, in which ‘The Day Before the Revolution’ features as the concluding story, Le Guin observes that she wrote this story after finishing her novel The Dispossessed. She felt ‘displaced’ after writing that novel – which she describes as the first attempt to ‘embody’ or dramatise the political ideology of anarchism in the form of a novel. Odo, the woman whose actions founded the anarchist society of the ‘Odonians’ who feature in The Dispossessed, doesn’t feature in that novel, as she had already died before the events of the book take place. ‘The Day Before the Revolution’ is about Odo on the last day of her life.

In this prologue to the novel, Odo is referred to as Laia, her given name. Having helped to lead a revolution, she is now an old woman of seventy-two years of age, who has suffered a stroke. The story begins with her dreaming about an earlier time when her partner, Asieo (also known as Taviri), was still alive. Then she wakes up when she finds the morning sun shining in through her window.

She is prone to occasional bouts of self-pity, which she struggles to suppress. She acknowledges the irony of the fact that those who follow her often worship her as a kind of leader for their movement, when the movement she had spearheaded – anarchism – expressly forbade the worship of leaders.

We learn that Laia has often been praised for her courage in going on, even after her partner Asieo (Taviri) had died and she had been thrown in prison. While in prison she had written a book, known as the Analogy, which crystallised some of the anarchist principles of the Movement she led. She is now in a relationship with Noi, a slim, muscular man half her age.

A province named Soinehe, located in the state of Thu, has just seceded from Thu, influenced by the anarchist teachings of the Movement. Laia dictates some letters which Noi takes down, urging those joining the Revolution to avoid leader-worship. However, when Noi has gone, she sits at the desk and confronts the horrible realisation that the Movement had been her life’s work, and now she had done everything she had to do, there was nothing left.

So she goes out into the streets and walks around. Seeing the slums, she observes that if the Revolution triumphs, such places will still exist, but it will be people’s choice to live in squalor, rather than being the fault of big business and capitalism. She grows weaker as she walks and ends up struggling her way back home, where she is surrounded by her supporters, who announce that there will be a protest the next day and the Revolution is about to get fully underway. However, Laia tells them that she won’t still be around tomorrow. Sure enough, she goes and starts to walk upstairs, and it is implied, in the final words of the story, that Laia has died.

‘The Day Before the Revolution’: analysis

As Ursula Le Guin states in her note to the story, both ‘The Day Before the Revolution’ and The Dispossessed are about the founding of an anarchist society, one which, Le Guin notes, had been prefigured in early Taoist thought, and expounded by Shelley and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman. The idea behind anarchism, as theorised by these writers and thinkers, is to bring down the authoritarian state, whether that state is capitalist or socialist. Anarchism is grounded in a belief in the value of cooperation, solidarity, and mutual aid. Laia Odo and her followers want to free ‘the dispossessed’, the downtrodden, and the powerless from their shackles and build a better society.

The final sentence of Le Guin’s note to ‘The Day Before the Revolution’ is also worth paying attention to. She states that Laia Odo is one of the ones who walked away from Omelas, a reference to Le Guin’s short story of the year before, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ (this 1973 story immediately precedes ‘The Day Before the Revolution’ in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters).

That story is set in the fictional city of Omelas, where the inhabitants seem to live happy and fulfilling lives. But the city’s happiness is apparently founded on unspeakable suffering: in a basement under one of the ‘beautiful public buildings’ of the city, a child of nearly ten years old is imprisoned and kept in a state of near-starvation and misery.

And this, the narrator tells us, is the dirty, dark, unpleasant secret that ensures the happiness of the rest of the city of Omelas: the rest of the city can only function if this one child is kept in ‘abominable misery’ all the time. But there are some who cannot abide to live in such a place whose prosperity is dependent on another person’s misery, and these citizens leave: they are ‘the ones who walk away from Omelas’. Curiously enough, critics have sometimes interpreted Omelas as an allegory for capitalism, where the prosperity of some people is directly dependent on others being kept in a state of poverty and hardship.

Laia Odo, then, is one who cannot countenance such suffering and wants to found a society in which people will be free to choose how they live their life: nobody will be the child kept in the basement in Omelas.

Another key idea underpinning ‘The Day Before the Revolution’ is the idea of the ‘Circle of Life’, and ‘true voyage is return’. Laia Odo has been working her whole life – her threescore years and twelve, we might say – towards the Revolution. But now her political ideas are gathering in strength and popularity, she is at the end of her life. She is weak, ageing, and lacking in purpose: she knows she has done everything she could do to inspire others to fight. She is ready to return to the state which she occupied before she was born, and let others take up the cause.

Laia, the third-person narrator tells us, had ‘unlearned despair’ a long time ago. Without despair, one cannot feel a sense of triumph. Le Guin is suggesting that revolutions and political movements aren’t necessarily either triumphs or failures: they can often take years or even decades to gather momentum, and as the people leading the revolution change, so does the shape or character of that revolution. Where Odo is now worn out, the youth, such as the young man who wasn’t even born when an earlier uprising took place, are full of spirit and ready to fight.

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