Last Updated September 5, 2023.
"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is one of Ursula K. Le Guin's most striking pieces of speculative fiction. The story centers on the utopia of Omelas, a land that is not too different from the real world (and is even described by the narrator as being highly personal to each reader). Le Guin's description of the people and their society is an essential part of understanding the gravity of the story's climax:
As they did without monarchy and slavery, so they also got on without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb. Yet I repeat that these were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians. They were not less complex than us.
Le Guin focuses on how the society of Omelas evolved and explains that it might be similar to or different from the reader's society.
Though the community's political structure is not described—nor are the complex economic and social structures that exist in all societies—the narrator states that the people of Omelas are not "simple." The narrator goes on the explain that it is in the absence of these complexities (in politics, in economics, and in social structures) that the people are content—this is the crux of their utopia. They don't experience the strife or struggle that comes with grappling with these dynamics; instead, they have developed the society of Omelas out of contentment and unity.
The narrator spends much of the story explaining what Omelas is like because, while it shares many similarities with real communities, it is different in a few fundamental ways. The people there may engage in activities that are conventionally considered "ammoral" (e.g., orgies, recreational drugs, and alcohol), yet it is still considered utopia. Furthermore, it is explained that the people of Omelas don't engage in practices of religion or war.
The narrator then intercepts the interpretation of the reader, assuming that, based on their description, the reader will consider this society to be too good to be true. It is at this point that the one condition this utopia relies on is revealed:
In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. . . . In the room a child is sitting. . . . 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. . . . The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. "I will be good," it says. "Please let me out. I will be good!" They never answer.
This is the underlying evil the is necessary to the existence of Omelas. Their society as a whole is built on the subjugation of this small child—an innocent life that has done nothing wrong—to absolute torment. This is the condition that the people of Omelas accept in order to keep their society secure and content. The idea of the utopian community, which seems to operate on absolute kindness and justice, is therefore predicated on the existence of one instance of absolute cruelty and injustice.
The title of the text comes from the idea that not everyone in Omelas can reconcile themselves to the fact that their utopia is bought at the price of an innocent child's suffering. Some...
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choose walk away from the city:
Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back.
The people of Omelas, those who stay, are the people that chose to accept that the life of the child was a reasonable sacrifice—a necessary condition to sustain their life of ease and prosperity. But the others, those who walk away from Omelas, are those who are shown the truth of their society and choose never return. For those people, the sacrifice is too much; they cannot stomach the guilt that comes from living in a utopia that is founded on the absolute torment of a child.