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The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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What are the major themes in "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas"?

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"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is a deeply philosophical work, designed as a kind of thought experiment concerning moral philosophy.

This is a story that focuses on utopianism and its costs. As the story makes clear, Omelas itself is an imagined community. Each person will have a different impression of what Omelas actually entails (for each person's ideals will differ from one another). However, as we read further, we learn that this imagined utopia carries with it a heavy cost, as the collective happiness and well-being is founded upon the profound suffering of a child.

Here we enter into the crux of the thought experiment. What Le Guin asks in this story is this: if our ideal utopia is one based in an act of profound suffering, is that suffering justified by the collective happiness that it produces? Furthermore, if these are the terms of utopia, does participating in that utopia make us complicit in the act of cruelty against the child? These are questions that the citizens of Omelas have to grapple with (a problem which leads some of its citizens to abandon the community altogether, entering into an unknown fate).

It's all a hypothetical, but one with real world applications. Consider all the ways in which human civilization (and even nature itself) is ultimately built on the suffering of others. The moral theory of utilitarianism defines morality in terms of the minimization of suffering for maximal happiness, but as the Omelas thought experiment points out: even such a goal as minimizing suffering involves an acceptance that we (as a society) would be willing to inflict cruelty on other people for the right price.

Of course, on the other hand, it's almost impossible to realistically envision an alternative. Le Guin's writing attests to this issue, with her image of those leaving Omelas embarking for a place that is truly indescribable, and might not even exist at all.

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LeGuin wrote the story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" to attack utilitarian philosophy. In this philosophic system, happiness is defined as the greatest good for the greatest number. Using this logic, utilitarians would celebrate Omelas as an enormous—even thrilling—success story because so many people are happy and only one is miserable.

LeGuin, however, shines a light on the one person in the society—a child—who is unhappy. Although the people of Omelas rationalize the fate of this child as acceptable, the story's graphic description of the child's filth, deprivation, lack of love, and overall misery causes readers to recoil and realize this situation cannot be blithely passed over as justifiable. LeGuin takes an abstract philosophical system, one which might seem reasonable when divorced from the real suffering it causes, and, by showing the materiality of the pain the child experiences, challenges the rationale of arguing for the greatest good for the greatest number.

Knowing that everyone in the society is aware that their happiness is fundamentally built on the suffering of an innocent child also undermines the notion that the rest of the people are truly happy. Can they be, given the uneasy awareness of the child that must always linger in the back of their minds? This system of structuring society—which is also how we structure our own society (given the exploitation of child labor in other countries so that we can have our conveniences)—is asserted as fundamentally unsound.

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This story conveys the idea that most people are willing to enjoy prosperity and happiness at the cost of someone else's quality of life; the majority are able to find a way to justify the misery of one of the most vulnerable individuals—a child—if it means that they will never have to endure such misery themselves.

The fact that some few people are willing to walk away from this trade-off shows a couple of things: 1) the folks who will refuse the offer to exploit another person in order to secure their own happiness are in the minority, and 2) it is even more difficult to find someone who is willing to stand up and try to change the system that involves this exploitation. We see no one attempt to change the status quo; they may walk away and register their dissatisfaction this way, but why do they not actually go and release the child from its prison? Why not dismantle the system?  It would only take one person to do so because, as the narrator says, it would happen in the moment that the child is brought out into the sunlight.

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The major themes of "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" involve moral boundaries, rights of the individual vs. the collective, and the personal choice to justify a small evil for a greater good. The wondrous paradise of Omelas is explicitly said to be dependent on the suffering of a single child:

If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.
(Le Guin, "The Ones Who Walk...,"

The justification is that the child is too mentally damaged to enjoy any quality of life, and allowing it to escape its horrific prison would destroy Omelas, so it might as well be left there and ignored. This, of course, places the "guilt" which is mentioned and which is presumably entirely absent from Omelas, on every single citizen who knows of and allows the child's mistreatment; the child is even explicitly shown speaking at first, only to mentally degrade as time goes on. As a moral choice, it is unsaid but understood that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one, and so the condition of the child never changes.

The people of the title, who leave Omelas for some unknown place, are then the people who cannot justify for themselves the deliberate decision to hurt others for their own gain. They embrace individualism and remove themselves from Omelas, even though they do nothing to change the common state itself.

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What are some themes in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"?

Through this compelling short story, the author forces us to ask an age-old question about the cost of happiness and the kind of cost that we are willing to pay to ensure that we live lives that know no sadness or sickness or pain. Through the distressing picture of the young girl who is somehow made to suffer greatly in exchange for the goodness for all, Ursula Le Guin puts utilitarianism in its extreme form under the microscope:

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 teh abundance of their harvest and teh kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery.

The question is of course whether this is a fair price to pay for the happiness of the majority, and whether this is a fair exchange: the extreme suffering of one for the happiness of many. Is this just? The way in which the title of the story and its ending focuses on those who think it is not and who leave this city and its happiness out of protest suggests that the author disagrees.

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What are three interesting topics that I could discuss from the short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas"?

Here are other topics for consideration:

As mentioned previously the pragmatism of William James is intrinsic to an examination of this story.  For, LeGuin wrote "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" as a response to this theory that states that a person's thoughts should guide his or her actions, and that truth is a consequence of a person's belief. (This almost sounds like Hamlet's remark:  Nothing is neither good, nor bad; only thinking makes it so.)  Is, then, the belief that the good of the many is worth the sacrifice of one?  That is, does pragmatism hold here? Or does moral responsibility supersede this belief?

Another topic concerns the definition of happiness.  While there is no pain, no sickness, no sorrow in Omelas, there does not appear to be real joy, even though the intrusive narrator declares "they were happy." Yet, LeGuin writes that the people no longer have the need of smiling: "all smiles had become archaic."  In what appears to be a utopia, there is still some doubt, and LeGuin's narrator asks, "Do you believe?  Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy?"  Some have not.  They are the ones who walk away, who know of the child and do not forget.  They

seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Here the question of moral responsibility to oneself emerges.  Can there be happiness without sorrow?

Finally, a third topic concerns the morally ambiguous last line quoted above.  If the ones who walk from Omelas [meaning "Peace, alas"] do so because they cannot be happy at someone else's expense, how is it that they can leave the child without trying to help him/her?

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What are three interesting topics that I could discuss from the short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas"?

I like Ursula K. LeGuin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," but I'm not sure that I completely understand it! I think I understand it well enough, though, to throw out a few possibilities:

1. Why is the story considered science fiction?

2. Is this an initiation story of some sort?

3. The story is subtitled "Variations on a Theme by William James." What does William James have to do with the ideas of the story?

In addition to those possibilities, consider searching through the previous question & answer items on this story. See the q-and-a link below.

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