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The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Where are "the ones who walk away from Omelas" going?

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The ones who walk away from Omelas are the few individuals who decide to leave their seemingly beautiful society. They leave because they cannot live in a place where their happiness is based on the suffering of an innocent child.

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Although "they seem to know where they are going," there is a moral ambiguity about the choice of the few who walk away from Omelas; for, in leaving Omelas to make their own destinies free of a scapegoat they have yet left the miserable scapegoat locked away.  Perhaps, then, there is no place where they can go without some guilt, as Judy Sobeloff suggests in her critical essay "Summary and Allegorical Significance in 'The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.'"

Thus, knowing that there can be no utopia, the ones who depart Omelas may leave behind the miserable child realizing if the child is freed, this scapegoat will simply be replaced there by another. So, the only alternative is to leave and find a place where there is no scapegoat, where each person takes responsibility for his/her own happiness, a happiness which inevitably must be accompanied by its own sorrow and guilt.

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This is a fairly profound question.  I think that those who leave Omelas are probably the most interesting of characters.  On one hand, they have understood that their notion of happiness was predicated upon another's suffering.  At the same time, they leave and enter a realm where guilt and personal torment will always be a part of their consciousness.  This is what makes them powerfully compelling characters.  Where they are going emotionally is to a realm where the happiness they once knew will never be back again.  They are entering into a domain where they might know contentment or a temporary respite from pain, but their existence will forever be rooted in a sense of guilt.  This comes from their silence while they enjoyed life in Omelas while the child suffered unimaginable pain.  The fact they leave indicates their profound remorse and sadness over such a situation.  Their departure means that they carry with them the sense of personal responsibility of wishing to change a situation they they cannot.  They go to a world where happiness will always be tempered by a sense of past and future experiences of guilt and anguish.

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Who are the ones who walk away from Omelas, and why do they leave?

The ones who walk away from Omelas are those who, having seen the abuse of the young child, decide to walk away from their beautiful city. We are told they leave one by one, walking through the gates of the city and past the fields that surround it to a new place.

They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back.

Those who leave do so because they reject the bargain Omelas has made for their happiness. They are not willing for an innocent child to suffer so that they can have a good life. In their eyes, because the imprisoned child exists at all, they do not believe that life in Omelas can be considered morally "good."

Because a certain small number of citizens leave, we know that staying is a choice. As the story states, everyone knows what is going on, but many people rationalize the suffering of the child—they believe that the child's sacrifice is justifiable if it is for the benefit of the rest of the population. They tell themselves that the child is used to its life of suffering, that it wouldn't know what to do with happiness. The ones who walk away can no longer accept these reasons as fair or just.

The story can be seen as a critique (though some would argue a failed one) on the philosophy of utilitarianism, which asserts that happiness can be defined as the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Le Guin argues it is wrong to base our happiness on the suffering of others.

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Who are "the ones who walk away from Omelas"?

The "ones who walk away from Omelas" are those who have seen the miserable and neglected child and who, evidently, cannot accept its misery in exchange for their own happiness. Children are told about this child when they are between the ages of eight and twelve, whenever they seem ready and capable of understanding. Then, if they wish, they are taken to see the child in its horrible broom closet, sitting in its own excrement and crying out. Some of them simply do not go home after seeing the child, to "weep and rage" as others do. They just head out in the the street and walk out of the city, across the farms, toward the mountains. The narrator says that these ones who walk away "seem to know where they are going." In addition to adolescent boys and girls, there is also sometimes an older man or woman who "falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home."

The ones who do not walk away seem to justify the child's treatment to themselves:

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

They tell themselves that the child, were it allowed to come out, is "too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy" because it has lived in fear for too long. Therefore, we can assume that the people who leave are those who cannot justify the continued misery of the child, even is required for them to maintain their own joyful existence.

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