illustration of a young boy in a cage in the center with lines connecting the boys cage to images of happy people and flowers

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

by Ursula K. Le Guin
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In "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," who is the narrator? What are her feelings about Omelas, particularly about the misery of the child on which the happiness depends on?

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The narrator has such specific and detailed knowledge of Omelas that it seems as though he or she might have lived there once. The narrator knows what the life of the children is like, what the horses wear and how they act, the names and locations of natural landmarks such as the mountains, even what the air smells like, and how and when the bells ring.

Or perhaps the city is an overtly pure fiction, and the narrator is just the person who poses this imaginary situation? The narrator only "suspect[s]" that the laws are few, and he or she does not know what those laws are. By repeating the first-person plural pronoun, "we," the narrator seems to establish him or herself as one of "us" and not one of them. The narrator says that "[The residents of Omelas] were not less complex than us." And he or she speaks of how we view happiness, how little of it we truly seem to feel, especially compared to these individuals. In many ways, Omelas does seem like a made-up place: the narrator tells us to go ahead and imagine it however we like in some ways. They might have technology like ours, or not. The narrator tells us to "add an orgy" if the city feels too goody-goody to us. Since these details are unimportant, even unknown, then Omelas very much could be implied to be, even by the narrator, a fictional city only.

The narrator's description of the child is unemotional, clinical, and very matter-of-fact, and he or she reserves judgment. The narrator says,

If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one . . .

The narrator presents the potential benefit and disadvantage of each possibility. In doing so, he or she seems to take a fairly objective view on the child and the situation in which the town finds itself. The narrator reserves judgment, just as those who walk away from the town seem to do.

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Both of these questions are important, but they are very different questions.

The narrator's identity is the tougher question. At no point are we told if the narrator is male or female. We're not even told who the narrator is. We know the narrator has extensive and intimate knowledge of Omelas. The narrator seems to have intimate knowledge of both Omelas and our world. When the narrator uses the term "we," he or she seems to be from our society. When he/she discusses what the citizens of Omelas feel or think, the narrator seems to either be from Omelas, or, more likely, to be its creator.

As far as the narrator's feelings toward the tortured child, that's almost as complicated. I'd say the best summary is distant compassion. Look at the actual description of the child, and the level of detail is amazing. It could easily nauseate a reader, or break a heart. At the same time, some of the words are formal ("excrement," rather than something cruder), and the tone is speculative and tentative: the narrator says "perhaps" this happened, and "perhaps" that.

The narrator seems to be at once withholding personal judgment and forcing the reader to make one.

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