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The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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How would you describe the city of Omelas?

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One can describe the city of Omelas in "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" as quite beautiful. Physically, it is absolutely idyllic, with wonderful sights, sounds, and smells. However, one can also accurately describe Omelas as possessing a dark side. All the happiness of everyone in the city depends on the misery of one child, and so this apparent happiness and beauty is somewhat deceptive.

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Le Guin's fictional city of Omelas is initially described as utopian. The story opens with an explanation of the city as it prepares for the Festival of Summer. Amidst the preparations, the weather is perfect and the people are joyful. Le Guin writes: "In other streets the music beat faster, a shimmering of gong and tambourine, and the people went dancing, the procession was a dance. Children dodged in and out, their high calls rising like the swallows' crossing flights over the music and the singing . . . boys and girls, naked in the bright air, with mud-stained feet and ankles and long, lithe arms . . . "

The narrator, after establishing setting, then goes into explaining her perspective on the way this city functions through the lives of its citizens. The narrator is clear that the citizens are complex and passionate people living in a setting of happiness. The elements of society that often cause controversy in reality have no such effect in Omelas. She explains that she believes that the city's laws are few, but just enough to keep perfect order, that religion is in place, but not in a restrictive way, that limited technology is available because any technologies that could be destructive are not permitted, and that, although there is a drug in existence, it is rarely used by the people of the city. In short, life in Omelas is meant to be seen as ideal. This Edenic existence is truly one that the narrator tries to immerse the reader in before allowing the reader to know the "dark secret" of Omelas: the child in the basement.

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Omelas is a Dystopian society masquerading as a Utopian society. Although Omelas only has one noticeable flaw, it is such an egregious flaw that the qualitative and quantitative happiness that the majority of the people experience is stained with an inexcusable sin. The people of Omelas can go on and on, pontificating about how the suffering of one justifies the wonderful happiness of all the others. But, this is a kind of bliss based on ignorance and in this case ignorance does not mean without knowledge; it means that they knowingly "ignore" the suffering of that one, unfortunate child. 

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery. 

Some people choose to leave Omelas rather than live in a society who's happiness depends upon the suffering of one person. The "Ones Who Walk Away" might go to a less joyous place, but they do so for ethical reasons. They leave in protest of this child's suffering. Omelas is a city full of morally irresponsible citizens. Consider this story as an allegory for the richest people in America living it up while the poorest portion suffers. Consider it as a global allegory. Some industrialized countries thrive while some developing countries are faced with political, economic, and sociological struggle. In either allegory or scenario, those who thrive and choose to ignore the less fortunate are the people who would stay in Omelas. 

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One might describe the city of Omelas as exceptionally beautiful. The narrator says that it is “bright-towered,” evidently referred to the illumined beauty of the city buildings. The flags on the harbor boats “sparkle,” and the houses are capped with red roofs, made of painted walls, and in possession of mossy gardens. There are “avenues of trees” and “great parks” dotting the cityscape. There are “broad green meadows” and lots of music, along with a “cheerful faint sweetness” in the air.

The bells ring out “joyous[ly].” The horses and people alike are beautifully arrayed in robes and ribbons, children play happily, and the city is charmingly situated in a spot surrounded by wide green fields, the mountains covered with pure white-gold snow, and the sea itself. The city is beautiful as is the spot into which it is nestled by these natural features. All of the words used to describe the physical appearance of the city are quite positive.

However, we might also describe the city of Omelas as possessing a rather dark underbelly: the mandated misery of the lowly child in the closet, the child who must be kept in darkness and squalor and pain in order to secure the happiness of everyone else.

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What is life like in the city Omelas?

At first glance Omelas is very much a utopian society—it is not a city with all our modern trappings, but the narrator stresses that this does not mean the people of Omelas are simple. They are happy, but this does not mean they are unintelligent. The inhabitants of the city are “not less complex than us”:

They were not naive and happy children—though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! but I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you.

In short, life was good in Omelas. And the narrator often makes him- or herself known in his or her attempts to describe, as accurately as possible, what this foreign city based on this foreign concept of happiness was truly like. Interjections and exclamations clarify to the reader that the narrator is uncertain how to supply us with a true representation of what Omelas really is—the details of such an interesting yet joyful existence. And the narrator decides that, really, it doesn’t matter—Omelas is what we would like to imagine it to be. Omelas, on a detailed level, is an amalgam of each reader’s subjective perspective on what would make up a utopian society. The narrator says ambivalently,

“they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that: it doesn't matter. As you like it.”

And then we see the narrator creating his or her own version of Omelas before our eyes, creating a balanced, egalitarian society of free love and free religion, with harmless, non-addictive drugs available to those who desire them and beer, of course, for those who do not. And what is being emphasized here is that it doesn’t matter—the details of life in Omelas aren’t important. How the people behave, their rituals and their edifices, their trade laws and their technology—none of it matters in the face of the pure, simple fact that they are happy. That they have managed to create a society that rests on that thinnest of ledges—nondestructive and sustaining. The narrator gives us one truth amid all this varied fantasy about Omelas, and speaks with conviction when he or she says, “One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt.”

This one undeniable detail happens to be one of the most important things about Omelas, because we soon learn that the people of the city, if they had cause to feel any sentiment beyond happiness, it would indeed be guilt. The society is trading the life-long misery of a single child for the happiness of the entire city. And it is not a secret. Everyone in the society is aware, and goes to see the child every once in a while—goes to see what they are trading for their improbable perfection. And those who see the injustice for what it is—these few are “the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

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