The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas Themes
The main themes in "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" are morality, happiness, and individuals versus society.
- Morality: Most citizens of Omelas decide that their happiness is more important than the child's suffering. However, some choose to walk away.
- Happiness: Le Guin presents the question of whether happiness can be considered real if it is predicated on the suffering of another.
- Individuals versus society: Aside from the child, no other character is treated as an individual. The other characters can be divided into two categories: those who walk away from Omelas and those who don't.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
"The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" is simultaneously a rich description of an imagined utopia and an intellectual exercise. Three critical themes in Le Guin's work are ideas of utopia, the relationship between happiness and suffering (and furthermore, the observation that collective happiness is ultimately built on suffering), and, finally, the question of how individuals within a society will react to their own complicity in suffering.
The Idea of Utopia
This story opens with a scene of a festival. There is a richness of detail and evocative language by which Le Guin brings this utopia to life, but, at the same time, the narrator makes it clear that this utopia exists solely within the imagination. Even within the story itself, Omelas is not understood as a real place. Rather, the narrator states that different people might imagine their own particular Omelas and that the world they envision is Omelas as it exists to them. The particulars don't actually matter—what matters is that this is utopia: a place of perfect happiness.
The Relationship Between Happiness and Suffering
The story jarringly transitions from a depiction of utopia to the suffering of a child, but this transition is particularly notable for the terms in which the narrator conveys it:
Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.
This is quite a noteworthy passage, through which the narrator introduces the profound and horrible suffering of the child; it is ultimately clear that it's the misery of the child that makes this utopia possible. The narrator even implies that this utopia would have been utterly unbelievable without it, which suggests that happiness cannot exist without suffering.
The juxtaposition of the child and the citizens of Omelas is a powerful metaphor for exploring the degree to which suffering and exploitation is embedded in human societies. From a certain perspective, Omelas can be considered—far from being simply an imagined utopia—as a distillation of aspects of the human condition. This story invites the reader to consider the ways in which many real and successful civilizations have been built on profound suffering.
The Choice Between Complicity or the Sacrifice of Utopia
We are ultimately left with a final question, which serves as the crux of this short story: can our collective happiness and well-being be justified if the profound suffering of others is the cost? When the citizens of Omelas learn about the child, a choice ultimately emerges: do they remain in this utopia, becoming complicit in the act of cruelty that serves as its foundation, or do they reject this calculus and leave the city entirely?
Each individual must ultimately grapple with the fact that their own happiness is built upon someone else's profound suffering and weigh whether they can, from a moral perspective, remain within that community. It is particularly notable, however, that this alternative place is a place which is entirely beyond the narrator's ability to describe—a place even more unimaginable than Omelas itself, and one which might not truly exist at all.
Ursula K. Le Guin has given this story a parenthetical subtitle, “Variations on a Theme by William James,” referring to the philosopher and psychologist who wrote that “some people could not accept even universal prosperity and happiness if it depended on the deliberate subjugation of an idiot child to abuse it could barely understand.” Le Guin’s story also has ties to Fyodor Dostoevski’s Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov , 1912), in which Ivan, the realistic brother, asks Alyosha, the religious brother, about God’s goodness in a world in...
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which children suffer. Ivan asks Alyosha if he would be willing to be the creator of a world in which every being was happy, if that happiness were based on the suffering of a five-year-old girl. Alyosha is forced to concede that he would not.
These issues are related to the concept of theodicy, which attempts to answer the question of the problem of evil that is summed up by three statements: God is good, God is omnipotent and omniscient, and there is evil. The existence of evil is usually accepted as a given. If God is good, but not omnipotent, he wants to stop evil but cannot. If God is omnipotent, but not good, he could stop evil but would not. In the Judeo-Christian system, however, God is understood to be both good and omnipotent, so some other answer for the existence of evil is necessary.
The concept of human free will has often been used to explain the evil in the world. Theologians use the story of the expulsion from Eden as an example of how human free will, uncoerced choice, may cause evil to occur. The people of Omelas knowingly allow the child to suffer so that they may be happy. Someone in Omelas gave the child up to its incarceration; it remembers its mother. Someone in Omelas may have the child in the cellar of his or her lovely home. Someone is responsible for its poor food. Someone kicks at it to make it stand when it is to be shown to a new group of children. The great majority of Omelas citizens are able to accept their lives at the expense of this helpless other and have rationalized that it could not really be made happy anyway. Even the ones who walk away make no attempt to take the child away with them. They choose to leave it to its suffering, fear, and pleading.
"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas'' is the story of a Utopian society whose survival depends on the existence of a child who is locked in a small room and mistreated. Although all of the citizens of Omelas are aware of the child's situation, most of them accept that their happiness is dependent on the child's "abominable misery." Sometimes, however, a few people, after visiting the child and seeing the deplorable conditions under which it lives, leave Omelas forever.
Morals and Morality One of the major themes in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is morality. Le Guin once wrote in a preface to the story that it is a critique of American moral life. She also explained the story's subtitle, "Variations on a Theme by William James," noting that she was inspired to write the story by something James, an American psychologist and philosopher, stated in his "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life": "[If people could be] kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment, ... how hideous a thing would be [the enjoyment of this happiness] when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain." Although James believed people would not accept such a bargain, Le Guin presents in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas'' a society that does just that so that she can explore the reasons why people avoid or renounce moral responsibility. In fact, the few people who do choose to leave Omelas after seeing the child are hardly noticed, and their act of protest is not understood by the people or the narrator.
As a political allegory, a story in which characters represent things or ideas to covey a political message, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" also addresses the morality underlying political systems. The child has been said to represent the underclass in capitalistic Western societies, particularly the United States, as well as the underdeveloped countries of the Third World. In both cases, poor, underprivileged people are often exploited and overlooked by the wealthy and prosperous. Therefore, Le Guin explores the moral accountability of a society where the happiness of the majority rests on the misery of a powerless minority.
Finally, Le Guin examines the moral responsibility of writers and readers by composing a story in which the narrator tries to entice the reader into taking part in the creation of Omelas. Because the reader is told to imagine Omelas "as your fancy bids," the reader is lulled into accepting Omelas and the horrible premise on which it is founded. Therefore, the reader, like the citizens of Omelas, can either accept the society or reject it out of moral indignation.
Victims and Victimization Closely related to the theme of morality is the theme of victimization, which is the act of oppressing, harming, or killing an individual or group. In this story, the victim, the child, is a scapegoat—it is sacrificed, the narrator states, so the other citizens of Omelas can live in happiness and peace. However, the narrator gives no good, rational explanation of how this situation came about, who set the terms, or how it is enforced, stating only that "if the child were brought up into the sunlight out of the vile place, if it were cleaned 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." Critics have said this lack of a rational explanation adds to the moral conflict of the story because readers are unable to fully understand why a scapegoat is necessary for Omelas to continue to exist.
Guilt and Innocence Le Guin also addresses guilt and innocence in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." Although the narrator states that there is no guilt in Omelas, the reactions of the citizens to the child's condition seem to suggest otherwise. For example, the narrator says that many people, after going to view the child, are "shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations. They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do." The few people who choose to leave Omelas because they cannot accept the situation on which the society rests also, presumably, feel guilt. But the narrator is unable to fathom such a reaction and merely states, "I cannot describe it at all."
Happiness Because "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is an example of Utopian literature, a type of fiction that depicts seemingly perfect societies, it also examines the meaning and consequences of happiness. Toward the beginning of the story, the narrator tries to explain why people are unable to accept happiness: "The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting.... But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold, we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy." Since there is some truth to such statements, Le Guin causes the reader to wonder if people do, in fact, reject happiness as something "rather stupid" because they are too critical and pessimistic to believe true happiness can exist. This only further entices the reader to accept Omelas and, in turn, the possibility of Utopian societies despite the negative consequences.