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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Why does the child have to be shut up in the basement?

In "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," the child has to be shut up in the basement in order to ensure the continued happiness of the people of Omelas. Their happiness is entirely dependent on the child's being abused in such an appalling manner. Even when some people find out about the abused child, they still decide to remain in Omelas, as they're not prepared to give up their happiness.

Expert Answers

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There's a direct causal link between the poor abused child being locked up in a basement and forced to live in unimaginable squalor and the continued happiness of the people of Omelas. Simply put, as long as the child remains locked in the basement, the people of Omelas will continue to be happy. What for the people of Omelas is a utopia depends upon the child's dystopia.

It's never actually explained how the child's misery and the people's happiness are linked, but it's there all the same. And the people of Omelas instinctively understand this, which is why so many of them choose to remain in the town even after they witness firsthand the appalling living conditions that the child is forced to endure.

Those who do leave Omelas clearly have a conscience. They represent the best of humanity, recognizing as they do that they cannot truly be happy now they know that their happiness is conditional on the abject misery of a child. Most of us like to think that we would behave in the exact same way, but countless examples from history exist to show us that in societies built upon evil, most people reconcile themselves to the prevailing order. They do not walk away.

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