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

Start Free Trial

How is the city of Omelas characterized as a utopia and what aspects of this characterization are most memorable?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Part of Le Guin's purpose in this story is to challenge our notions of utopia. In your essay, you need to be clear about the provisional nature of LeGuin's description. On the one hand, she provides remarkable visual imagery of the town and the "Summer Festival." The procession to the Green Fields, the children and their horses, the mauve and grey robes of the old men, even the snow capped mountains that surround the town—these details all tend to describe Omelas as a place of beauty, free from conflict, full of youthful energy.

However, she soon poses questions about the believability of the scene—these were not "simple folk," but "mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched." Omelas' existence as a utopia, it seems, depends on our own ability to believe in the reality of joy. If that belief requires us to imagine Omelas as a place of orgies and free love, than Le Guin encourages us to imagine that. If it means drug use, she encourages us to imagine that as well. Or, most chillingly, if our belief in utopia requires the misery of others to support greater happiness, then we should imagine that as well. In Omelas, this sacrifice comes in the form of the child locked in the broom closet. The specifics of the place are less important than the examination of the attitudes of Le Guin's reader toward utopia.

Le Guin suggests that the true utopia—a place "even less imaginable" than Omelas—is the place people escape to when they opt out of the illusion of happiness that Omelas represents.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Write an essay in which you define the characterization of the city of Omelas as a utopia. Use plenty of details and examples to support your thesis. In your point of view, focus on the characterizations of the city that were the most memorable and provide the rationale for your choices

If I wrote this paper, I think I'd focus on the fact that this is not, in fact, a true utopian society. After all, everyone's happiness depends on the suffering of one innocent child, which is far from perfect. I'd therefore structure the thesis something like this:

Although the city of Omelas seems superficially perfect, the citizens's acceptance of the suffering of one innocent child classifies it more appropriately as a dystopian society.

In the first body paragraph, you could examine all of the "perfect" things about this society. The town sits by the sea, and boats adorned with sparkling flags line the harbor. Horses's manes are "braided with streamers of silver, gold, and green," and they prance about. The people are joyous, intellectual, and passionate. The aromas of delicious cooking and the sounds of a flute fill the air. The townspeople are gathered to celebrate the Festival of Summer, a time of year symbolic of life and fullness. Perhaps most notably, this line stands out to me as a descriptor of the citizens:

They were not barbarians.

Aren't they?

I would then transition into the next body paragraph, examining the one thing upon which all this happiness rests. Each adult in town has chosen to sacrifice an innocent child in order to uphold this superficial sense of joy. Locked away from the rest of the town and kept separate from all human kindness, this child is malnourished, mistreated, and hopeless:

It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes—the child has no understanding of time or interval—sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes.

The willful torture of a child negates the superficial utopia that the town enjoys. Dystopia for one is dystopia for all. There are some who walk away from this torture and from their superficially "perfect" town. Not a single citizen comes back to rescue or help this child who has been sacrificed for the "joy" of the rest of the town.

The purpose of a dystopian story is to issue a warning about potential pitfalls in society. In the conclusion, you could examine how overlooking the needs of society's most vulnerable citizens is no less tragic than what has happened to this one child locked away in Omelas.

I hope this helps with the structure of your paper. Good luck!

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on