What is life like in the city Omelas?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

At first glance Omelas is very much a utopian society—it is not a city with all our modern trappings, but the narrator stresses that this does not mean the people of Omelas are simple. They are happy, but this does not mean they are unintelligent. The inhabitants of the city are “not less complex than us”:

They were not naive and happy children—though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! but I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you.

In short, life was good in Omelas. And the narrator often makes him- or herself known in his or her attempts to describe, as accurately as possible, what this foreign city based on this foreign concept of happiness was truly like. Interjections and exclamations clarify to the reader that the narrator is uncertain how to supply us with a true representation of what Omelas really is—the details of such an interesting yet joyful existence. And the narrator decides that, really, it doesn’t matter—Omelas is what we would like to imagine it to be. Omelas, on a detailed level, is an amalgam of each reader’s subjective perspective on what would make up a utopian society. The narrator says ambivalently,

“they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that: it doesn't matter. As you like it.”

And then we see the narrator creating his or her own version of Omelas before our eyes, creating a balanced, egalitarian society of free love and free religion, with harmless, non-addictive drugs available to those who desire them and beer, of course, for those who do not. And what is being emphasized here is that it doesn’t matter—the details of life in Omelas aren’t important. How the people behave, their rituals and their edifices, their trade laws and their technology—none of it matters in the face of the pure, simple fact that they are happy. That they have managed to create a society that rests on that thinnest of ledges—nondestructive and sustaining. The narrator gives us one truth amid all this varied fantasy about Omelas, and speaks with conviction when he or she says, “One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt.”

This one undeniable detail happens to be one of the most important things about Omelas, because we soon learn that the people of the city, if they had cause to feel any sentiment beyond happiness, it would indeed be guilt. The society is trading the life-long misery of a single child for the happiness of the entire city. And it is not a secret. Everyone in the society is aware, and goes to see the child every once in a while—goes to see what they are trading for their improbable perfection. And those who see the injustice for what it is—these few are “the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

Posted on

Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial