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The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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What is Omelas in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"?

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On the face of it, Omelas appears to be an absolute paradise. The sun is always shining, and the people are happy and carefree. But in reality, this supposed paradise is founded on evil. The happiness of this idyll is based on the ill-treatment of a child locked away in a basement. When some people realize that their happiness is based on a child's suffering, they walk away from Omelas.

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To the untrained eye, Omelas seems like a utopia: an ideal state in which everything is just as it should be. The people are happy, the weather is wonderful, and there is a constant round of festivities in which everyone joyfully participates. For many people, this would be their ideal of what a community should be.

Yet what appears to be a demi-paradise is in actual fact based on a monumental act of evil and injustice. As we soon discover, the happiness of Omelas is wholly dependent on the ill-treatment of a small child, chained up in a squalid basement like a wild animal, starved, and regularly beaten. We're never actually told how or why there is a causal link between the misery of the child and the happiness of the citizens of Omelas, but it's there all the same, and for a minority of people in this town, it presents them with a huge moral dilemma.

A small number of people decide that they can no longer live with this evil in their midst, so they walk away from the town altogether. But a much larger number decide to stay, unwilling to give up their happy lives, even if their happiness depends on the deliberate infliction of cruelty upon an innocent child. Some of these people, it would seem, try to deal with their guilt complexes by taking drugs. This is about as near as they will get to walking away from Omelas.

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What is Omelas's connection to real life in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"?

One way to think about the story is to understand it as a comment on modern society and the imagination. In this way of thinking, the narrator assumes that the reader will have a hard time believing that Omelas is a real place because it is a kind of utopia; it only becomes "real" when we understand that its perfection is made possible by the misery and subjugation of a single child. This can be read as a comment on the developed world, the comfort and wealth of which is based on the exploitation of the poor.

In another sense, Omelas is a commentary on the liberal impulse to imagine a more perfect society; in this case, the story is about the hollowness of such fantasies and impossibility of imagining happiness without some form of misery for comparison. This is why the destination of the ones who leave Omelas is unknown: presumably, unable to live in a place made possible by the exploitation of others, they leave to go to an indescribable place where such compromises are not necessary. In this sense, the story is connected to real life not only by critiquing modern society, but by suggesting that the only way to eliminate subjugation is to "leave" Omelas, or to invent a truly radical, completely different way of life.

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What is Omelas's connection to real life in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"?

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursala Le Guin explores the theme of scapegoats. Within the text, the suffering child acts as a literal scapegoat for the rest of the town's happiness; since the child permanently suffers, the rest of the town can live in utopia. While this supernatural balance does not translate to the real world, the greater ideas of scapegoating do.

Historically, scapegoats have existed for centuries with anything from ritualistic sacrifices to genocide "cleansings"  to blaming leaders/politicians for the pitfalls of whole-societal issues. For more examples, see this Huffington Post article, "The Blame Game: 11 Scapegoats In History." 

Le Guin brings up this issue to invite the reader to think about his or her own choices and ways of thinking. For instance, is scapegoating moral? If you go along with scapegoating, are you a "bad" person? Is the idea of the "greater good" moral? Is your happiness worth the cost of someone else's? Is your life and happiness more valuable than someone else's?

The beauty of the way Le Guin portrays this debate lies in the way she leaves the answers to the above questions in the hands of the reader. She does not condemn either the townspeople or the walkers for their choices, and therefore does not guilt the reader into one mindset or another.

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