Ursula K. Le Guin has given this story a parenthetical subtitle, “Variations on a Theme by William James,” referring to the philosopher and psychologist who wrote that “some people could not accept even universal prosperity and happiness if it depended on the deliberate subjugation of an idiot child to abuse it could barely understand.” Le Guin’s story also has ties to Fyodor Dostoevski’s Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912), in which Ivan, the realistic brother, asks Alyosha, the religious brother, about God’s goodness in a world in which children suffer. Ivan asks Alyosha if he would be willing to be the creator of a world in which every being was happy, if that happiness were based on the suffering of a five-year-old girl. Alyosha is forced to concede that he would not.
These issues are related to the concept of theodicy, which attempts to answer the question of the problem of evil that is summed up by three statements: God is good, God is omnipotent and omniscient, and there is evil. The existence of evil is usually accepted as a given. If God is good, but not omnipotent, he wants to stop evil but cannot. If God is omnipotent, but not good, he could stop evil but would not. In the Judeo-Christian system, however, God is understood to be both good and omnipotent, so some other answer for the existence of evil is necessary.
The concept of human free will has often been used to explain the evil in the world. Theologians use the story of the expulsion from Eden as an example of how human free will, uncoerced choice, may cause evil to occur. The people of Omelas knowingly allow the child to suffer so that they may be happy. Someone in Omelas gave the child up to its incarceration; it remembers its mother. Someone in Omelas may have the child in the cellar of his or her lovely home. Someone is responsible for its poor food. Someone kicks at it to make it stand when it is to be shown to a new group of children. The great majority of Omelas citizens are able to accept their lives at the expense of this helpless other and have rationalized that it could not really be made happy anyway. Even the ones who walk away make no attempt to take the child away with them. They choose to leave it to its suffering, fear, and pleading.