In "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. LeGuin, what is the theme?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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 “The Ones Who Walk Away from the Omelas” by Ursula K. Guin describes a utopian city that is characterized by a child suffering for the good of the entire society.  On the surface, anyone would want to live in Omelas.  The citizens live with luxuries, without wars, or competition. The children are happy and the adults are intelligent and passionate. Then the caveat comes when it is learned that the basis for the city is the maintenance of a suffering child.

The theme of the story arises from the psychological term “scapegoat.”  The term means that a person or group is made to bear the blame or to suffer in their place.  This is true for Omelas. Life will go on in the utopia as long as one child lives in agonized loneliness.

The story emphasizes the individual versus society. In Omelas, the child is sacrificied for the good of everyone.  When society discovers the child, the people handle the knowledge in different ways:

  • Ignore the child
  • Go to see the child
  • Think about the child but do nothing
  • Save the child and live as other people live
  • Walk away from Omelas never to be heard from again.

The question becomes can people enjoy their lives once they know that their happiness comes from the suffering of the child.

Life is wonderful in Omelas except for the city’s secret.  The wondrous life in Omelas necessitates that a individual child be kept in a dark, lonely place.  The child will communicate with no one; in addition, the child should be starved, filthy, and entirely miserable.  When a citizen shows signs of maturity, he will be told the story of the suffering child. 

After encountering the secret, a  person is shocked and saddened.  When given the choice of ending the child’s suffering or living on with their mother, most of the citizens continue on with their happy lives in Omelas. 

On the other hand, a small fraction of people cannot live under the knowledge of the tortured child.  The story ends with "The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away."

They walk away from Omelas, never to be heard or seen again.

Part of the thought process of reading the story engages this train of thought:  privilege  has its price.  This has been proven historically.  The upper class usually achieves its wealth on the backs of those who work for them. 

Furthermore, in today’s society in which each family now owns and uses eight to ten phones and three or more televisions, it is appalling that over twenty percent of America’s children live in dire poverty with few efforts to alleviate their suffering.

With that knowledge, is it so strange that Omelas survives only by the anguished soul of a child!

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