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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The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas Analysis

  • The concept of Omelas is based on a moral quandary posed by philosopher William James, who imagined how hideous happiness would be if it were predicated on the suffering of a child.
  • Its idyllic setting by a shimmering sea and its exuberant Summer Festival all indicate that Omelas earnestly thinks of itself as a utopia. However, the existence of the abused child under the city taints that happiness, making Omelas a dystopia instead.
  • The story can be interpreted as a political allegory. The child living in misery under the city represents the working class, which supports the upper class with underpaid labor.


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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The story can be read quite persuasively as a political allegory. Those citizens who celebrate the Festival of Summer—those who enjoy the peace, the contentment, and the utopian happiness of Omelas—can be considered the privileged of society. They enjoy a life free from stress and worry; a life full of time to do what they want, whenever they want; a life of celebrations. They do not worry about where their next meal will come from, and they have the ability to be carefree.

The child in the closet, then, is representative of those without privilege in society—those people whose lives consist of sweat, labor, stress, and worry; they never have enough to eat. The happiness and lovely success of the privileged is dependent upon the suffering of those without privilege. Without the labor and pain of these individuals, those with privilege could not maintain their position in society. If the underprivileged were liberated from the abuse they suffer, then the privileged would not be able to keep their status.

There are abundant examples in real life of people who enjoy their positions of privilege without acknowledging or caring about the underprivileged. This is very similar to how the citizens of Omelas can live with the knowledge of the miserable child. For example, the owners of a large, successful company could choose to pay their employees a higher wage and take smaller salaries for themselves, but often they do not. The wage gap between those with the highest salaries and those with the lowest salaries in large companies can be astounding, and the people who are earning the lowest salaries are often not even making a living wage. This analogy can be extended to consumers as well—we may benefit from cheap prices on food and clothes, but companies often keep prices low by outsourcing production to countries where wages are extremely low and workers labor in poor, often unsafe, conditions.

The citizens of Omelas find ways to justify the status quo and maintain it. They say the child is an imbecile—that it wouldn't even understand what it had been given if it were freed and brought out into the light. Likewise, some people argue that those who are underprivileged are in these positions because they do not work hard enough or because they made bad choices that curtailed their opportunities; this kind of language is used to justify the continued suffering of people who have been systemically disadvantaged and oppressed by society.

In this way, we can read the story as a political allegory that urges readers to examine their own complicity within systems of privilege.

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