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The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas – Ursula K. Le Guin Essay

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a 1973 short story by Ursula K. Le Guin. It is a philosophical parable with a sparse plot featuring bare and abstract descriptions of characters; the city of Omelas is the primary focus of the narrative.[1] “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” was nominated for the Locus Award for Best Short Fiction in 1974[2] and won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1974[3] Publication : Le Guin’s story was originally published in New Dimensions 3, a hard-cover science fiction anthology edited by Robert Silverberg, in October 1973. It was reprinted in Le Guin’s The Wind’s Twelve Quarters in 1975, and has been frequently anthologized elsewhere It has also appeared as an independently published, 32-page hardcover book for young adults in 1993 Plot summary

In the story, Omelas is a utopian city of happiness and delight, whose inhabitants are intelligent and cultured. Everything about Omelas is pleasing, except for the city’s one atrocity: the good fortune of Omelas requires that a single unfortunate child be kept in perpetual filth, darkness and misery, and that all her citizens should be told of this upon coming of age. After being exposed to the truth, most of the people of Omelas are initially shocked and disgusted, but are ultimately able to come to terms with the fact and resolve to live their lives in such a manner as to make the suffering of the unfortunate child worth it. However, a few of the citizens, young and old, silently walk away from the city, and no one knows where they go. The story ends with “The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

Background and themes : The central idea of this psychomyth, the scapegoat”, writes Le Guin, “turns up in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, and several people have asked me, rather suspiciously, why I gave the credit to William James. The fact is, I haven’t been able to re-read Dostoyevsky, much as I loved him, since I was twenty-five, and I’d simply forgotten he used the idea. But when I met it in James’ ‘The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,’ it was with a shock of recognition.” Character = List of Characters(no specifcs given for any one person in the story) – Citizens of Omelas The citizens of Omelas, as shown by the difficulty the narrator has with describing “a happy man,” are joyful and genuinely happy, but it is not a happiness devoid of responsibility. The citizens all “know it is there” (it being the child in the cellar)and see that their happiness could not be without the misery of one. As the narrator says, “to praise despair is to condemn delight,” and so the inverse is true as well. The citizens of Omelas choose to celebrate and praise the delight they feel in their city of happiness, this, therefore, condemning the child in its misery.

The citizens are not less complex than us and are not barbarians. Beyond this the narrator concedes and tells its audience to imagine things, not contrary to the nature of the city, which would make omelas a more believable society with ore believable citizens. Statements such as “I incline to think that,” and “I think that,” make any statements made subjective in terms of the city and citizenry of Omelas.- Audience of Narrator The audience of the narrator is diverse as the narrator says that “certainly I cannot suit you all.” They have trouble describing a happy man or celebrating joy as the people of Omelas do because we are they are heavily influenced by pedants and sophisticates who say that “happiness [is] rather stupid,” and that “only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting.” They praise despair and thereby condemn delight, the opposite of the people of Omelas.

Because the narrator consistently says we referringto he/she and the audience, one can assume that the narrator is one of the people he/she is attempting to explain the citizens of Omelas to. The audience finds the idea of a society of happiness and peace and love unbelievable and so the narrator must continue through the utopian city and its characteristics until he/she comes to the cellar where the child of misery is found. The narrator must have asked him/herself “do I believe in them, in the happiness of the city?” The answer was no until he/she found the child in the cellar, that thing which makes the city credible. – Child in the cellar The child in the cellar is talked about for nearly one full page from the middle of page three to the middle of page four and is generally vague in description. The child remains genderless and the reason for its solitude is nothing more than a requirement of some strict terms which were laid out by an unknown person or a group of unknown people.

The child is feebleminded, but there is no specific reason for this. It sits in ts own excrement and fears mops which are described as having dirty, clotted heads. It remembers having a mother and being out of the tool room in the sunlight. The child is an allusion to the Jesus Christ of the Protestant church who died on the cross for the sins of mankind that the wrath of God would be satisfied and the people, after receiving Jesus as their savior could live an eternal life in heaven, a true utopia with no suffering allowed within the gates. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. – The ones who walk away from omelas These people are talked about for a short time as a side note after the audience believes the city could exist.

These people reflect on what they have seen of the despair of the child and after thinking on what options they have they leave their homes and proceed to leave the city of Omelas. They leave the city of happiness, and havng been citizens of Omelas are truly happy people living their lives responsibly because of their knowledge of the miserable child. They leave alone, each individually. They each take their own initiative to separate themselves from a place that they now believe to be inadequate as a utopia. – Flute player One of the citizens of Omelas, this child of 9 or 10 years plays a flute alone. This loneliness is commented on further in the symbolism page.

There are no specifics given for the child’s personality other than his willingness to allow himself to be “wholly rapt in the sweet, thin magic of the tune.” (also note the minor characters-bearded man, youths on the horses, old woman, young men-) Protagonist -The protagonist(s) could be the ones who walk away from Omelas because they are the only ones to see that what the city is doing for their happiness(keeping a child locked away in a cellar) is wrong and in leaving they defy the terrible justice of reality by living happy lives in a place where there is no suffering. – ” ” could be the narrator who tries to convince the audience of the credibility of the city of happiness – ” ” could be the child in the cellar who tries desperately to have the people of Omelas hear his/her plea “I will be good…”

The child fights hunger and fear every day in a cellar suffering for the good of the city. – ” ” could be the citizens of Omelas who are forced to keep a child locked away to keep their happiness which they hold so dear. These are the terms laid out by whom, we don’t know. – Just as there could be no central, driving conflict, there may be no protagonist. Antagonist -The antagonist(s) could be the ones who walk away from Omelas as they leave the child in the cellar who they feel is wrongly locked away as well as leave the city in ignorance of their wrongdoing for something more unbelieveable than the city of happiness. – ” ” could be the citizens of Omelas who keep a child locked away for their own benefit. – Just as there could be no central, driving conflict, there may be no antagonist. Representations : The people of Omelas could represent the utopians of any fantasy and are referred to as unbelieveable despite the narrator’s insistence that they and their city exist. At one point the narrator decides to spout off characteristics of the citizens and the city that are only thought to be truth.

These things are just characteristics that make the utopia more personal and appealing and possible in the eyes of the audience. The audience, because of the narrator’s decision to direct speech at the reader, represents any culture or society which the reader belongs to. In our case it is a culture of consumerism where wealth takes precedence over all, including those suffering in third world countries. We are not as aware of the suffering in our world, but it is there and this makes us a lot like the utopians of Omelas. Despite their praise of delight being opposite to our praise of despair, they are a lot like us in that when they see the suffering for themselves, they feel compassion and wish to help, but after seathing in anger, they realize that this is how it must be. The balance must remain as it is, or is this just something they tell themselves? Is it really that their utopia will collapse if they allow the suffering child to go free, or is this just what they believe will happen? Will the child remain as it is despite any freedom it may be given, or is this just a way of justifying their actions.

At one point in the story, the walls of the cellar are said to “protect,” but who are these walls protecting? Minor ConflictsCellar : The child in the cellar is in conflict with its environment as it is afraid of the mops in the corner of the cellar. The child is unable to leave this environment and is also in conflict with the other citizens of Omelas as they are the people that imprisoned him/her for their own gain. Omelas : The ones who walk away from Omelas as well as the citizens of Omelas have an internal conflict after they see the source of their happiness. They fight with themselves trying to understand the concepts of misery and joy and whether or not to leave Omelas or accept the terrible justice of reality.

Major ConflictObserver : From the middle of page 1 to the end of the story, the narrator is in conflict with the reader trying to convince the reader of the validity of the city of happiness. The narrator pauses after each point is made with the question “Do you believe? Do you accept…,” and in the end is forced to tell the reader of what they knew to be true from the beginning, the city of happiness has its share of misery. It may be locked away, but it is ther. It is this unwillingness of the reader to believe in the possibility of perfection that drives the conflict in the story. These people of Omelas are found to be hiding the shame in a basement, hidden from the public eye.

They are not perfect and are therefore more credible to the reader. Point of View = The point of view in this story is First Person Observer. This means that the narrator is telling the story through his/her eyes, using words like I, me, my, our, we, etc. For example, inThe Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, the narrator knows about what happens in Omelas, and is able to see why the people of Omelas keep one child locked in a cellar, but can also see why this could be considered wrong and can understand how people on the outside could view this.


Omelas is described to us as a utopia. A place where everything is perfect. The city is located on a waterfront with its Eastern and Southern sides facing the water. The Western and Northern fronts are surrounded by small patches of fields (used for growing food) and then immediately below 18 large snow-capped mountains. Beyond the mountains lies something so unimaginable it may not even exist. However there are other cities throughout the area which people can visit Omelas via train from. Omelas is presumably located on Earth.To place an exact date on the story would be almost impossible. It occurs near the start of Summer and other than that all we know is that they seem fairly advanced (use of trains) and have knowledge a lot like ours which indicates the setting is probably within the last 200 Earth years.

Due to the start of Summer the story occurs during the beginning of the Summer Festival. This is a grand time of merriment and laughter between the citizens of Omelas.The short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas explains a city, a city which is void of sadness, despair, and jealousy. This city portrays true happiness, the kind of which is unimaginable beyond the wildest of dreams. It is elegant, beautiful, yet simple and remarkable. This city is the pinnacle of perfection, nothing is like it. It’s a utopia.

But this is not possible, and as it so happens, there is, in fact, something terrible: a child, a sacrifice, forced to live a life… no, not a life, a death. But how can this be? With all this goodness in a city, how can this be justifiable? Maybe it’s a mistake, possibly unknown? No. They all know. Most of them don’t like it, but they know it’s inevitable. Some of them leave, escape. One thing is certain. Nothing is perfect. Themes : There are many other viable themes in this short story, here are a couple;

Good does not exist without evil

This is another theme which is expressed throughout the short story. The people of Omelas know that they need to have the small bit of evil for them to truly understand that which is good. They force the single child to live such a terrible life so that they can compare their lives with the child’s life. Through this comparison they are able to identify that their lives are in fact full of goodness. Some instead think it better to share the pains of evil, and leave Omelas. It is hard to determine who the good people are and who the evil people are in this situation. This does not matter, only the fact that there is evil and there is good is important to prove this theme.

Happiness is in the eye of the beholder

This is proven through many comparisons with our society and their society. Their society is content with what they have. The story tells how their society is not less complex than ours “They were not less complex than us.”(Pg. 1, line 36) But they make do without the technological advancements and special equipment that we use to make our lives “happier”. To most of us, happiness would be having anything we could possible want, but to them, happiness is right there with them and nothing more is needed or desired to sustain this happiness.

Knowledge can be more painful than pain itself

You do not have to agree that this one is entirely true, but there is evidence that can help prove its relevance. In Omelas every citizen visits the child that is forced to suffer. Upon visiting the child, they become shocked that everyone is allowing for this to happen. These citizens often end up going home, crying or raging. These reactions show that the citizens of Omelas feel the mental pain from knowing about the child. Most citizens choose to cope with the pain in exchange for the genuine happiness that they will receive. A small few do decide, though, that the pain from this knowledge is too great for any reward, and so they leave Omelas to remove the burden of being part of such an unjustifiable activity.


Summer Solstice:
This is symbolic of the light of our consciousness shining more brightly in our awareness.
* Power* Grace* Beauty* Nobility* Strength* Freedom
Note: Both the horse and the citizens of Omelas seem to show these characteristics. Also the quote with the horses being a part of the ceremony might be a part of this. Bird (specifically, the swallow):

Represents freedom, but in the case of the swallow, it’s a limited amount of freedom. Swallows can fly, but only so far before they have to rest. Colors:
* Grey -> Neutral, balanced, in control* Green -> Life, nature, fertility and well being * Silver -> Justice and purity * Gold -> Power, wealth and faith* Red -> Danger, emergency and love * Blue -> Truth, peace and distance* Yellow -> Warm, cheerful and summertime * White -> Serenity, purity and virtue* Black -> Night, death, and sadness Flute Player: Lonliness? Are the people of Omelas really happy and living full lives? Sure, they all live together in the city but their lives might not be as connected as depicted in the story.

The flute player is making beautiful music, an attraction. Yet people seem distant towards him. Maybe judgement? Eyes: More judgement. The people of Omelas are supposed to live without anything morally wrong yet they are constantly judging people. In fact their way of life is dependent on remembering they are better than someone else. Understanding: None of the citizens seem to have a complete grasp of what to think. During their young years they seem to almost always be in a state of confusion because of the child in the cellar.

Drugs/Sex Reference: The importance of drooz could really be anything but we’ve speculated that it probably is a way of showing that not everyone in the city is really happy and they require (like us) another means of escape from their lives. The allusion to sex might be something that helps us relate to the people of Omelas as it is a primal urge which all humans feel. Cellar Child: This child is really a scapegoat. Something the town uses to push all of the blame onto so that they can live happily. He plays a pivotal role in Omelas but it’s really not a great job to have.

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