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The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

by Ursula K. Le Guin
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How would you describe the city of Omelas?

One can describe the city of Omelas in "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" as quite beautiful. Physically, it is absolutely idyllic, with wonderful sights, sounds, and smells. However, one can also accurately describe Omelas as possessing a dark side. All the happiness of everyone in the city depends on the misery of one child, and so this apparent happiness and beauty is somewhat deceptive.

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Le Guin's fictional city of Omelas is initially described as utopian. The story opens with an explanation of the city as it prepares for the Festival of Summer. Amidst the preparations, the weather is perfect and the people are joyful. Le Guin writes: "In other streets the music beat faster, a shimmering of gong and tambourine, and the people went dancing, the procession was a dance. Children dodged in and out, their high calls rising like the swallows' crossing flights over the music and the singing . . . boys and girls, naked in the bright air, with mud-stained feet and ankles and long, lithe arms . . . "

The narrator, after establishing setting, then goes into explaining her perspective on the way this city functions through the lives of its citizens. The narrator is clear that the citizens are complex and passionate people living in a setting of happiness. The elements of society that often cause controversy in reality have no such effect in Omelas. She explains that she believes that the city's laws are few, but just enough to keep perfect order, that religion is in place, but not in a restrictive way, that limited technology is available because any technologies that could be destructive are not permitted, and that, although there is a drug in existence, it is rarely used by the people of the city. In short, life in Omelas is meant to be seen as ideal. This Edenic existence is truly one that the narrator tries to immerse the reader in before allowing the reader to know the "dark secret" of Omelas: the child in the basement.

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Omelas is a Dystopian society masquerading as a Utopian society. Although Omelas only has one noticeable flaw, it is such an egregious flaw that the qualitative and quantitative happiness that the majority of the people experience is stained with an inexcusable sin. The people of Omelas can go on and on, pontificating about how the suffering of one justifies the wonderful happiness of all the others. But, this is a kind of bliss based on ignorance and in this case ignorance does not mean without knowledge; it means that they knowingly "ignore" the suffering of that one, unfortunate child. 

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery. 

Some people choose to leave Omelas rather than live in a society who's happiness depends upon the suffering of one person. The "Ones Who Walk Away" might go to a less joyous place, but they do so for ethical reasons. They leave in protest of this child's suffering. Omelas is a city full of morally irresponsible citizens. Consider this story as an allegory for the richest people in America living it up while the poorest portion suffers. Consider it as a global allegory. Some industrialized countries thrive while some developing countries are faced with political, economic, and sociological struggle. In either allegory or scenario, those who thrive and choose to ignore the less fortunate are the people who would stay in Omelas. 

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One might describe the city of Omelas as exceptionally beautiful. The narrator says that it is “bright-towered,” evidently referred to the illumined beauty of the city buildings. The flags on the harbor boats “sparkle,” and the houses are capped with red roofs, made of painted walls, and in possession of mossy gardens. There are “avenues of trees” and “great parks” dotting the cityscape. There are “broad green meadows” and lots of music, along with a “cheerful faint sweetness” in the air.

The bells ring out “joyous[ly].” The horses and people alike are beautifully arrayed in robes and ribbons, children play happily, and the city is charmingly situated in a spot surrounded by wide green fields, the mountains covered with pure white-gold snow, and the sea itself. The city is beautiful as is the spot into which it is nestled by these natural features. All of the words used to describe the physical appearance of the city are quite positive.

However, we might also describe the city of Omelas as possessing a rather dark underbelly: the mandated misery of the lowly child in the closet, the child who must be kept in darkness and squalor and pain in order to secure the happiness of everyone else.

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