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 does the child symbolize in Omelas?

In "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," the child symbolizes the injustice upon which the town's happiness is based. People in this town can only be happy because a small child is locked away in a basement and forced to live in squalor. The peace and stability of the town, as well as its happiness, are dependent on the continuation of this fundamental act of injustice.

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All societies are riven with injustice of one sort or another. But there are few, if any, where the happiness of the people, not to mention the peace and stability of society, is dependent on the continuation of injustice. Yet that's precisely the situation in the fictional town of Omelas in Ursula K. LeGuin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." On the face of it, Omelas seems like a utopia. Everyone appears to exist in an almost permanent state of bliss in this sun-drenched land where the fun never stops.

Beneath the shiny surface, however, lurks a dark, disturbing truth. The happiness enjoyed by the people of Omelas is entirely dependent on the maltreatment of a small child. Locked away in a basement, feeding off scraps in conditions of unimaginable squalor, this poor child leads an unenviable existence that anyone with a shred of decency would find morally repugnant. The child has been subjected to a blatant injustice, and it's this foundational act of injustice that the child symbolizes.

This injustice is foundational in that the happiness of Omelas's society is built upon it. Omelas is only happy because of the vile treatment meted out to the abused child. Yet many people in Omelas—the majority, in fact—choose to remain in the town. This would suggest that they are prepared to tolerate injustice in their midst just so they can continue to live their lives of unalloyed bliss.

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