How does the setting of "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" develop the central idea of happiness?
The short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin tells of a seemingly idyllic town that is in the midst of a joyous celebration called the Festival of Summer. The tale begins by describing the city, the surrounding landscape, the social structure, the well-being of the citizens, the recreational drugs people use, and the flamboyant processions.
However, the description then takes a dark turn as Le Guin writes of the horrific underpinning of their happiness. In the cellar of one of the buildings is a feeble-minded child. This child is tortured physically and psychologically, and through some mysterious process, this brings about the happiness of everyone else.
The city's children, when they are between the ages of 8 and 12, are brought in to see the child so that they will understand what the joy of Omelas relies upon. Most accept the arrangement as the way things have to be. However, sometimes solitary citizens become dissatisfied with the compromise they have made and leave the city. These are the ones who walk away from Omelas.
To highlight the beauty and happiness of the city in contrast to the squalid, windowless, frightening room that the poor tortured child lives in, Le Guin creates a setting that could have been taken out of a fairy tale. She writes:
Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time.
To give this impression, she uses fairy tale tropes in her descriptions of the setting. For instance, Omelas sits on a scenic bay, and the peaks of nearby mountains glisten with snow. The city has bright towers, boats in the harbor with riggings full of flags, red-roofed houses, "painted walls," "moss-grown gardens," "avenues of trees," and "great parks and public buildings." It is easy to imagine this setting in a fairy tale or a fantasy, and when Le Guin goes on to describe the celebrations and the revelers the central idea of happiness is complete. The author even encourages readers to adjust the setting to their own personal preferences: "Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids." It's as if the narrator realizes that this vision is too good to be true—and in fact, soon afterwards, the narrator begins the description of the horrific cruelty that every citizen tolerates as the price of their own happiness.
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