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The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Why do people leave Omelas in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"?

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People walk away from Omelas in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" because they witness the torture that one child faces that is said to make the utopian way of life that is enjoyed in the town possible. They do not believe that the imposed suffering of one, especially one that is innocent, is acceptable in ensuring happiness for the majority of others.

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The people of Omelas understand, to varying degrees, that the "happiness of thousands" is dependent on the abject misery of the child in the closet. They know that the "goodness and grace of every life" in the city would be forfeit if the child were ever to be brought out, cleaned up, and comforted. The narrator explains that to "throw away" the happiness of everyone in Omelas for the happiness of that one child "would be to let guilt within the walls indeed." Most people, over time, can find a way to rationalize this utilitarianism to themselves, weighing the happiness of thousands against the misery of one. They consider how the child could never lead a normal life now, could never live without fear because "it" has lived in fear for so long.

However, every now and then an adolescent who has just seen the child does not go home, or an adult simply grows quiet for a day or two and then leaves. These people are unwilling to accept the child's misery as the price of their happiness. They are also not willing to make the decision for others—they could, after all, go get the child and relieve its suffering, but they do not. They simply remove themselves from the position of accepting happiness in exchange for the child's tragedy by walking away. Evidently, their principles will simply not allow them to be complacent with this trade, nor will their principles allow them to dictate to others what choice they should make.

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To their undying shame, the vast majority of people in Omelas seem to have no problem with the fact that the happiness and stability of their society are dependent on the abuse of an innocent child. Omelas is only the utopia that it is because a child has been locked away in a basement, where "it"—the precise gender is never determined—is routinely starved and abused. So long as the child remains in this wretched condition, then the people of Omelas will continue to enjoy a blissful, happy life. This is the deal to which most people have signed up.

Astonishing as it may seem, the majority of Omelas's citizens are more than happy to remain in the city, even though they know full well that such happiness is founded on the misery of a child. And yet a minority of people appear to have developed a conscience. Clearly, they've come to the realization that they cannot fully enjoy life in the city so long as they know that their happiness is conditional on the most appalling abuse imaginable.

So they choose to walk away from Omelas, unable and unwilling to live in a city that's prepared to treat an innocent child so abominably.

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The people who choose to walk away from Omelas do so because they realize the terrible price at which their utopian lifestyle comes. They choose to not be a part of the hideous ongoing abuse of the child who must take on the suffering of the entire town.

Everyone who lives in Omelas lives an extremely contented life, as is seen as the story opens at the Festival of Summer. The price for this happy life is paid by a child of indiscriminate gender, who spends "its" life locked in a basement utility closet. The desire to leave Omelas that some residents feel after seeing this child is well justified. It is kept in the dark day and night and gets only gruel to eat. It is as though this child is forced to take on all the compounded misery that would naturally be shared by all the residents of Omelas.

I would argue that it is the good people who live in Omelas who walk away. Their departure comes in the aftermath of seeing the fate of the child in the closet. At this moment in life, every resident of Omelas faces a choice: to stay and continue to benefit from the abuse of this child, or to walk away and leave the utopian lifestyle behind them.

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The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas walk away because they do not want to be a party to the terrible crime of scapegoating the one wretched child.  They decide that it is not worth it.

The people of Omelas have made a strange bargain.  They want eternal peace, so they choose to sacrifice one of their children, whom they keep in a wretched state, locked up and abused.  This way, they are able to live perfect lives, always knowing that the child suffers for them.

The people of Omelas accept the sacrifice of the child because it keeps them in their perfect life.  The child is the sacrificial lamb.  For them to be happy and carefree, the child has to suffer.  They all have to learn “acceptance of their helplessness.”  However, some do not.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all.

Older people also sometimes go.  One “falls silent for a day or two” and then leaves.  They decide not to be party to it anymore.  They always go alone.  It is an individual decision.  They never come back, and “they seem to know where they are going.”

Leaving Omelas is a moral decision.  It is a choice to do what is right, instead of what is easy.  It is an irreversible choice, and it means severing oneself from the community forever.  But who would want to be part of a community like this anyway--to sacrifice one child for the peace of all?

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In "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," did they walk away because they were depressed and unhappy people?

No. Or rather, no, they didn't walk away because they were intrinsically unhappy, but rather because they were unwilling to take part in a system that depending on another's suffering. They were happy with their choices, even though they didn't know what their fates would be.

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