Themes and Characters
As mentioned earlier, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is the story of a Utopian society whose survival depends on the "abominable misery" of a child who is locked in a small room and mistreated. Although all of the citizens of Omelas are aware of the child's situation, most of them accept that their happiness is dependent on the child's deprivation. Some people, however, after visiting the child and seeing the deplorable conditions under which it lives, leave Omelas forever.
One of the major themes in the story is morality. Le Guin once wrote in a preface to the story that it is a critique of American moral life. She also explained the story's subtitle, "Variations on a Theme by William James," noting that she was inspired to write the story by something James stated in "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life": "[If people could be] kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment,. . . how hideous a thing would be [the enjoyment of this happiness] when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain." Although James believed that people would not accept such a bargain, in this story Le Guin presents a society that does just that. This device allows her to explore the reasons why people avoid or renounce moral responsibility. In fact, the few people who do choose to leave Omelas after seeing the child are hardly noticed, and their act of protest is not understood.
As a political allegory—a story in which characters represent things or ideas to covey a political message—"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" also addresses the morality underlying political systems. The child has been said to represent the underclass in capitalistic Western societies, particularly the United States, as well as the underdeveloped countries of the Third World. In both cases, poor, underprivileged people are often exploited and overlooked by the wealthy and prosperous. Le Guin explores the moral accountability of a society where the happiness of the majority rests on the misery of a powerless minority.
Finally, Le Guin examines the moral responsibility of writers and readers by composing a story in which the narrator tries to entice the reader into taking part in the creation of Omelas. Because the reader is told to imagine Omelas "as your fancy bids," the reader is lulled into accepting Omelas and the horrible premise on which it is founded. Therefore, the reader, like the citizens of Omelas, can either accept the society or reject it out of moral indignation.
Closely related to the theme of morality is the theme of victimization, which is the act of oppressing, harming, or killing an individual or group. In this story the victim, the child, is a scapegoat—it is...
(The entire section is 1144 words.)
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The child, whose existence is revealed toward the end of the story, is abused and mistreated so the other citizens of Omelas can live in prosperity and happiness. Locked in a small room or closet with no windows, the child is dirty, naked, and malnourished. It receives only half a bowl of corn meal and grease a day and often sits in its own excrement. The narrator states that the child ''could be boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect." All of the citizens of Omelas know of the child's existence, but they also ''know that it has to be there. [They] all understand that
their happiness.... [depends] wholly on this child's abominable misery." The child, therefore, is the scapegoat of the story; it is sacrificed for the good of the others in the community.
The Citizens of Omelas
The citizens of Omelas are described as happy, non-violent, and intelligent. Everyone is considered equal in Omelas; there are no slaves or rulers. In Omelas, children run about naked, playing; ''merry women carry their babies"; and "tall young men wear.... flowers in their shining hair." The narrator also stresses that although the citizens are happy, they are not simple or naive; "they were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched.'' All of the citizens know about...
(The entire section is 285 words.)