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The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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In Ursula K. LeGuin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," what does the child in the closet represent ?

The child in Le Guin’s story can be seen as a symbol of everyone who suffers for the benefit of others – everyone who allows the happiness of others to exist.

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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...

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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.

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What does the child symbolize in "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin?

The child who is locked up in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" represents a scapegoat.

The subtitle of Le Guin's story is "Variations on a Theme by William James." This subtitle indicates that William James's philosophy of pragmatism was the inspiration for Le Guin's narrative. According to this philosophy, the meaning of a proposition is found to be true if its practical application is successful.

The narrative indicates that life in Omelas is pleasant, and "the children were, in fact, happy." This happiness is pragmatic:

Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive.

In the basement of one of the buildings in Omelas, there is a "feeble-minded" child who bears the burden of misery so that all the others can live without any conditions that cause imperfection. This child, who has the role of scapegoat, has no understanding. However, "all the people of Omelas....know it has to be there" because their happiness, their skills, their wisdom, and their environment all depend upon this miserable creature's existence: 

Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it.

Nonetheless, there are some who cannot accept this pragmatic situation of a wretched child bearing such degradation so that the citizens of Omelas can live in an idyllic setting. These are the ones who believe in moral accountability; these are the people who "walk away from Omelas." They do not accept the idea of one child's misery and degradation being justifiable if it serves the greater good. They find the victimization of one person as a scapegoat in order to procure the contentment of others indefensible and immoral. The idea of pragmatism is thus rejected.

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What does the child symbolize in "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin?

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin presents a Utopian society that simulates a fairy tale style of life. Everyone is happy.  The city is beautiful and well-built. There is no crime. The people are intelligent.  There are none of the negative aspects of life with which the reader is familiar.

Yet, something was lacking. Smiles had become archaic, and joy was difficult to define.


This society had a great flaw. The continuation of the Omelas depended on a child that lived in a basement broom closet with no windows, behind a locked door. The child had been in this closet without communication, human touch, or any kind of help. He was naked and covered in sores. His sanity was gone because of the circumstances. Fed once a day, he ate half a bowl of corn meal and grease.

Symbolically, the child represents the selfishness of man.  The innocent, mistreated, and tortured child is punished to provide the happy lifestyle of the people of the Omelas. The child is almost a Christ symbol because he is giving his life so that Omelas may survive. If the child were allowed to go free, the idyllic utopia would be chaotic and its joy eradicated.

Everyone in Omelas knows about the child. The children are told between eight and twelve years old.

…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.

The ones who walk away cannot bare the thought of living off the suffering of a child. No one knows for sure what happens to those that choose to leave the city because they are never heard from again. 

This pathetic child represents morality and the moral choices that a society faces. 

The first choice is to continue with the status quo. Let the child suffer for the greater good. Life will go on in Omelas as it always has: happy children, perfect lives, and perfect society.

The second choice would have those who cannot tolerate knowing about the child leaving the civilization and finding someplace else to live.  Unfortunately, this is running away from the problem. This child is not helped and will continue to suffer because no one was willing to do something to help it.

The third choice would be to defy the rules and bring the child out into civilization. This would require that the citizens be willing to sacrifice for the welfare of the suffering child; they would lose Omelas.

The civilized world knows what is right and wrong. No child should suffer so that someone else can be happy.

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What is the child symbolizing in Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"?

In "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," the child symbolizes the disenfranchised in any society. The foundation of Omelas is built on the misery of this child: the happiness and joy of the entire community absolutely depends upon the child and the horrible conditions in which it lives. It is malnourished and "feeble-minded." It might have been born "defective," or its development might have been stunted by living in fear, as it is frightened of the mops in the corner of the small closet in which it is kept. It is not allowed to come up into the sunshine, and though it promises that it "will be good," no one can allow it the privilege of living the charmed life everyone else does. "They all know it has to be there" or else "the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas" would be forfeit.

Societies rely on those with less privilege to do manual labor or menial jobs, for example, but if it were not for people doing those manual or menial—but totally necessary jobs—society would crumble. It is as though the people in Omelas, all those who enjoy life and contentment, are the privileged, and the child represents those who lack privilege, those who do not share the same entitlements. The child must live in fear, must eat food that is not nourishing, and it "disgusts" the people who come to see it.

Notably, the child is even referred to as an "it" by the narrator; it is dehumanized by the privileged members of society. The people of Omelas find a way to justify their treatment of the child, suggesting that its happiness and comfort are not as valuable as their own, that it is not worth it to end the child's misery because they would have to give up their own bliss to do so. Like those with privilege in all societies, whether that be racial privilege or caste privilege, for example, privileged people rely on those with less privilege to do the things they do not want to do themselves.

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