The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas Symbolism

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

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“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.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

Read the study guide:
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

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