One way to interpret the symbolic significance of the mistreated child in Ursula K LeGuin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is to see the child as symbolizing the suffering the exists in the world – suffering that allows happiness to exist for some. The child may represent, for instance, people who must work hard, in often miserable conditions, to provide comfort for others. One contemporary example might be itinerant farm workers, who are paid very little for very hard work – work that benefits everyone who eats well and everyone who eats cheaply. Another contemporary example might be the laborers in China who earn pitifully small wages (and who often live in spaces not much larger than closets) in order to produce the many consumer goods that people in much of the rest of the world desire, and desire at relatively cheap prices. In short, the child may symbolize the kind of misery on which many of the pleasures of civilized people depend:
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.
Could we, overnight, make everyone enjoy the same standard of living without undermining the comfortable standard of living we ourselves so much take for granted? Could we suddenly end the misery that exists in the world without paying the high price of losing so much of our own pleasure? Without such misery – without hard work for cheap prices – our own lives might not be nearly as comfortable as they are. If we had to confront such misery and admit how much we benefit by it, we might be sickened.
Another contemporary example that now seems highly relevant to Le Guin’s story involves the ways humans treat (or, rather, horribly mistreat) animals in order to eat diets full of animal protein. We eat beef, but we rarely think about the ways cows are slaughtered to provide our hamburgers. We eat chicken, but we rarely think about the suffering chickens must endure before they arrive, dead, at our tables. We might someday, conceivably, eliminate the kind of human suffering described above, but how likely are we ever to completely turn our backs on the eating of meat and seafood? Does it really matter to us that, in order to satisfy our taste for flesh, billions of animals must die painful deaths each year to provide the kind of cuisine we desire?
Le Guin’s story raises many troubling ethical problems, and the child in the story can be seen as a symbol of anyone – or any particular thing – that suffers for the benefit of others.