4 Stories About Social Responsibility

Standing Up for What's Right

Short stories can accomplish any number of things for their readers, from entertaining us, to scaring us, to teaching us empathy. One of the things stories do best is raising questions that invite us to examine our own lives and our place in the world.

Here, then, are four stories that do a particularly good job of revealing the inertia that often prevents us from meeting our responsibilities to our fellow human beings.  

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'The Last Night of the World' by Ray Bradbury

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In Bradbury's story, everyone seems to know that the world is about to end, but they seem more resigned than frightened. The end seems inevitable, they reason, given "the way we've lived."

A husband asks his wife, "We haven't been too bad, have we?"

But she responds, "No, nor enormously good. I suppose that's the trouble."

Yet they don't seem to believe things could have been any other way as if their actions aren't really in their control. Up to the very end, they follow their usual routines, as if they can't imagine any other way to behave. 

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'The Lottery' by Shirley Jackson

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In Jackson's famous story of a bucolic American town with a horrific annual rite, the villagers seem more loyal to tradition than to humanity. The only person who recognizes the injustice is the victim, but until she is confronted with her fate, she -- like all the other villagers -- lacks the empathy to imagine what it would be like to "win" this lottery.

Unlike Bradbury's characters, whose guilt comes mostly from benign self-absorption, Jackson's characters must actively take steps to perpetuate this barbaric ritual, the purpose of which was forgotten long ago. Yet they never stop to question whether there might be a higher good than the preservation of rituals.

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'Your Duck Is My Duck' by Deborah Eisenberg

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Eisenberg's story features a couple so wealthy and so attractive that they can "live the way they felt like living." They're callous toward each other, petulant with their staff, and alternatingly disdainful and demanding toward the artists they invite to stay with them.

They take advantage of environmental disasters wreaking havoc on the country where they own a "beach place," buying up cheap real estate. When things go from bad to worse -- in part because of their actions -- they simply fly the coop and continue their lives elsewhere. 

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'The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas' by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Le Guin portrays a city of unparalleled joy, the preservation of which requires the vicious suffering of one single child. Though each person in the city, upon first learning of the child's existence, is sickened by the situation, they eventually become numb to it and accept the child's fate as a necessity for the well-being of everyone else. No one fights the system, but a few brave souls choose to abandon it.

Group Think

None of the characters in these stories sets out to do anything overtly awful. Bradbury's couple have led ordinary lives, just like everyone else they know. They are dimly aware that other people in the world suffer more than they do, but they haven't felt driven to do much about it. Jackson's characters merely follow tradition. If they find any moral fault with anyone at all, it's with Tessie, who "wins" the lottery and is generally, in their opinion, a bad sport about it. Eisenberg's narrator passively benefits from the largess of people whose wealth seems to come from -- or at least result in -- the exploitation of others. And most of Le Guin's citizens accept that a child's suffering, though regrettable, is the price they must pay for everyone else's unbridled happiness. After all, everyone else does.

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Sustana, Catherine. "4 Stories About Social Responsibility." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/stories-about-social-responsibility-2990558. Sustana, Catherine. (2020, August 28). 4 Stories About Social Responsibility. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/stories-about-social-responsibility-2990558 Sustana, Catherine. "4 Stories About Social Responsibility." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/stories-about-social-responsibility-2990558 (accessed January 22, 2021).