The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas Summary
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin. The story’s narrator describes the seemingly utopian city of Omelas and the one injustice upon which this utopia depends.
- When the story opens, the people of Omelas—a place of unimaginable happiness—are celebrating the annual Summer Festival.
- Underneath the city, a child has been locked away and forced to live in misery. Omelas’s happiness is contingent upon the suffering of this one child.
- Sooner or later, every citizen of Omelas learns of the child’s existence. Horrified, some people walk away from Omelas, never to return.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Le Guin's horrifying tale "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" begins with a seemingly happy occasion: it is the Festival of Summer and people are enjoying the beautiful weather and the festivities. The narrator speaks directly to the audience as they describe the children who are preparing for a horse race and the spectators who are outside.
The narrator states that the townspeople are happy and cautions us not to equate happiness with simplicity. They tell us that the people are happy to live in a town with few laws or restrictions and urges the reader to imagine the particulars of the of the town themselves, using their own ideas.
Interestingly, the author does not provide details that readers have come to expect from a storyteller; the narrator does not paint a clear portrait of the town, and readers are invited to fill in the blanks of this "fairy tale" town. The narrator attempts to stop readers from thinking of the town as a boring "goody-goody" utopia—they suggest that there might be orgies, religion without temples, or an excess of alcohol. Keeping the image of the town vague, the narrator makes a great effort to prevent the audience from thinking of this town as any specific location—the only thing they know for sure is that its inhabitants are extremely contented. The particulars do not matter: what is important is that this "utopia" could be anywhere.
Then, we are hit suddenly with the town's horrifying secret: a young child is being kept locked away in a basement utility closet. Unable to identify the gender of the child, or its exact age, the narrator uses the pronoun "it." The child lives in squalid conditions, has only corn meal and grease to eat, and remains perpetually in the dark. When the child is visited by the people of the town, these visitors either stare in disgust or kick the child. After crying out for help when first locked away, the child is now reduced to whimpering because of "fear, malnutrition, and neglect."
The townspeople know about the child, but they perpetuate its abuse out of an understanding that their fates depend on "this child's abominable misery." They are convinced that if the child were to be set free, destruction would come to the utopia that is Omelas. So, despite knowing that they take part in victimizing a poor, helpless child, they do not free it, and they take pains to put it out of their mind—in an effort to preserve their own happiness.
The people who see the child are thus faced with a choice: accept the conditions of this utopia and move on with their lives or leave the town. Some of those who visit the child and are presented with the awful truth of their society cannot live with what they know. Sometimes, when they leave the closet, they do not return home:
They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back.
They recognize that in the town, they do not have true freedom, and they are just as trapped as the child. Their consciences help them to break free.
Ultimately, the narrator suggests that the town is not real at all: "It is possible that it does not exist." Yet, the narrator invites us to suspend our disbelief and consider that such people and situations can be real. We are left with the images of the helpless child and the people with a conscience who choose to walk away from utopia.