Omelas is a utopian city where the people lead lives that are happy, in the best sense of the word. On the day on which the narrator is focusing, the city’s people are celebrating the summer festival. The children ride willing horses in races and race about the fields in their bare feet. The day is bright and clear, music of all kinds fills the air, bells ring, and the air itself is sweet.
The narrator is conscious of the fact that the idea of happiness, and in particular the happiness of an entire city, may be a suspect concept to others. Happiness implies a kind of innocence and foolishness and lacks the complexities that are most often attributed to pain and evil impulses. However, the narrator insists that the people of Omelas lead complex lives.
The people may lack certain things that others have, but they do not feel that lack as a deprivation. These people have come to an understanding of what is necessary, what is destructive, and what is both or neither. Those things that are necessary, they have. Those luxuries that are neither necessary nor destructive, they also have. Omelas is a joyful city inhabited by mature, intelligent, passionate adults. Their lives are not wretched, nor are they puritanical.
This picture of Omelas is not the whole story. There is something that makes the city special in another way. The city has a guarantee of happiness; it has struck a bargain, although how and with whom it is not clear. The bargain is this: In a room under the city is a stunted, frightened, half-starved child, and everyone over adolescence in Omelas knows that the child is there. The child is locked in a closet and shown off to those who wish to see it. It is fed half a bowl of cornmeal mush a day and is left to sit, naked, in dirt and its own excrement. The child barely talks, except for a bit of whining gibberish and a plea, heard less and less often, to be let out. No one is allowed to speak even a kind word to the child, and no one stays with it long.
If the child were rescued from its cell-like closet, the whole of the city of Omelas would falter. The city’s great happiness, its splendors and health, its architecture, music, and science, all are dependent on the misery of this one child. The Omelas people know that if the child were released, then the possible happiness of the degraded child—and it is only possible, not probable—would be set against the sure failure of the happiness of the many. Thus, the people have been taught compassion and the terrible reality of justice, and on this they base their lives.
Inexplicably, there are some young people, and sometimes even an adult, who, shortly after viewing the child, leave Omelas through its gates and head into the mountains. They do not return.