The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas Themes
by Ursula K. Le Guin

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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.

Themes

"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.

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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.

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1,878 words.)