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

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Key Plot Points

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The Festival of Summer Begins: With a “clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring,” the narrator surveys the city of Omelas as the citizens celebrate the Festival of Summer. The sunshine flickers from the mountain tops to the bay. There are children playing, horses parading, and citizens smiling as they eat pastry. The people of Omelas are happy: there is free love and social order without “swords [ . . . ] or slaves.” The citizens are not “barbarians,” but they live simple lives without much technology or many rules. The narrator invites readers to add whatever details they find most pleasurable and believable. Then the narrator asks readers directly, “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy?” If not, says that narrator, “then let me describe one more thing.” 

The Child in the Basement: The narrator reveals the grim foundation upon which this utopian reality is built: a neglected “feeble-minded” ten-year-old child who languishes in the basement of one of the buildings. The child is alone, in the dark, fearful of the mops nearby, and tormented by memories of the sunlight and its mother. The naked child is miserable, sitting in excrement with thighs and buttocks covered in sores. The people of Omelas know about the child, and they know that their happiness depends on its misery. The narrator does not make clear why the citizens’ happiness depends on this child’s misery, but it is generally understood that without this child’s suffering in the basement, “all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed.” 

The Ones Who Walk Away: Once the younger citizens of Omelas learn about the child’s existence, they may visit the child. Sometimes, even adults will visit. During these visits, these people are forbidden to speak to the child. Often, visitors who have encountered the “terrible paradox” leave in tears. Most individuals are saddened but accept the child’s suffering as an inevitability. They recognize that the child has been so mistreated that it could never return to society. The final lines of the story describe, mysteriously, the adolescents and the older citizens who choose to leave Omelas. These people walk into the dark and never return. The narrator admits to not knowing where they go, that perhaps they depart for a place that does not even exist. However, those who leave, “seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.” 

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