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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What are the two ultimate decisions the citizens make once they are aware of the secret of Omelas in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"?

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The citizens of Omelas have two choices: live with the terrible secret or leave town. Each person must make that decision alone. According to the rules of the town, the child must live in poverty, loneliness, and utter squalor so that the rest of the society can thrive. As the...

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The citizens of Omelas have two choices: live with the terrible secret or leave town. Each person must make that decision alone. According to the rules of the town, the child must live in poverty, loneliness, and utter squalor so that the rest of the society can thrive. As the children allowed to fully experience the utopia get older, they become aware of the child who is locked away. Inevitably, they react with the horror any human being would have. They want to help the child, but cannot. “The terms are strict and absolute” that the child suffers for the happiness of the town.

Some adolescents and fewer adults choose to leave. They cannot be a part of such a barbaric custom any longer. Feeling helpless to do anything to assist the child, they choose to leave their lives in the paradise and venture out of town to the unknown. They take the bold chance that a better place exists; they want to be a part of it.

Most townspeople choose to stay and deal with their feelings of disgust rather than uprooting their lives. They recognize how savage the custom is and cry in anger; however, they reconcile their feelings of anger and rationalize the child's continued captivity. A common argument is that even if the child could be freed, its life would not be good. The child has already learned to be less than human, so how would it function in a human capacity? The people justify their inaction by convincing themselves that the child would prefer to live the way it does. It knows misery, not comfort. Those who stay choose “acceptance of their helplessness” in order to continue their happy lives without guilt.

No one makes the decision to help the child; irrational fear precludes anyone from attempting to show it care and love.

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In Ursula K. LeGuin's fictional city of Omelas, citizens are asked to accept a difficult bargain. The widespread happiness and prosperity of their utopia is possible only because one small child is forced to live its life in a torturous state of sacrifice.

The citizens learn of the child when they're old enough to "seem capable of understanding." When they do, most leave the room in disgust and anger. They think of what might be done for the child, how they might help it, and how much better the child would feel.

In time, though, the majority of citizens deconstruct their anger to the point that they accept the child's suffering. They start asking themselves what they'd be sacrificing if they upended the system currently in place. Could the child could really live a good life now, they wonder, after what it's been through? Is the uncertainty of the child's future happiness is a fair trade for the certainty of everyone else's? Eventually, most decide to stay, and those who do are complicit in the child's incarceration.

Occasionally, a citizen chooses to walk away from their paradise instead of accepting the mandatory social paradigm. When they do leave, they go alone—down the road, out the gates, across the farmlands, and to the mountains. By doing so, they sacrifice the utopian certainty of Omelas for an unknown future.

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