What is the function of the suffering child in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"?

The function of the suffering child in "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" is to set up the central conflict. The reader, like the citizens of Omelas, has to make a moral decision. Is it acceptable to base one's own happiness on the pain and misery of a child, or should one walk away from the beautiful city?

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The suffering child in LeGuin's story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is the scapegoat for the misery of others, so that the others are able to live in comfort and happiness.

The concept which LeGuin explores in this work of philosophical fiction is that of the...

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The suffering child in LeGuin's story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is the scapegoat for the misery of others, so that the others are able to live in comfort and happiness.

The concept which LeGuin explores in this work of philosophical fiction is that of the greater good, a concept explored in William James's The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life. In this work James writes on a supposition that one person might be able to absorb the pain, illness, and misery for all others:

Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which...millions [could be] kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture....

This miserable creature that is confined is essential to the comfort of all the others in the community. In Omelas, then, all the "goodness and grace of every life...." depends upon the condition of this child imprisoned in a basement of one of the attractive public buildings. This miserable creature must be kept there for "the greater good" that allows others happiness and comfort.

When children reach the ages of between eight and twelve, they are brought to see this isolated creature, and all are shocked at the sight. But they are instructed that if something were done for this miserable creature, the "beauty and delight" of Omelas would wither and die. Only by exchanging all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas can the single child's life improve. While some residents of Omelas are so disturbed by the discovery that they "walk away from Omelas," departing into the unknown, others become reconciled to the idea that one life where evil is contained is worth the happiness of all others. Further, they feel that even if the child were released, it has been degraded for so long that it "would not get much good of its freedom," anyway, because it has become "imbecile."

With this vagueness of position at the end of LeGuin's allegory, the readers must, then, draw their own conclusions of the author's particular illustration of Pragmatism.

 

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The suffering child functions to set up the central conflict in the story. At first, Omelas sounds like a perfect utopia, a beautiful, joyous place that combines the best of Medieval community and loveliness with the best of modern technology. It is hard to imagine not wanting to live in such an ideal place.

All of that changes when we discover that the happiness of this world is based on the abuse, neglect, and suffering of an innocent child. It is morally repulsive to imagine our own happiness to depend on the continual pain and misery of a young child. We learn that the society has rationalized the child's suffering as acceptable because this suffering has enabled so much joy. The society has embraced the philosophy of Utilitarianism, which defines happiness as that which brings the greatest good to the greatest number of people. From the Utilitarian point of view, the suffering of the child, while it might make people uneasy, is worth it because of the benefits it brings to so many.

However, the awareness of the child's existence is a source of discomfort that taints and threatens to spoil all that is good. Can the culture be good if it is based on cruelty? Can any person really enjoy all the good things they have knowing that they are enabled by another's suffering?

The child represents suffering and pain. She represents what people often do to children in marginalized situations who toil so we can have nice lives. Because of the child, every citizen of Omelas and every reader has to make a decision: would they accept a child's pain to achieve their own pleasure, or would they walk away?

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