“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a short story by American writer Ursula K. Le Guin , who was awarded the 2014 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. The story won the 1974 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, which is given annually for a science fiction or fantasy story.
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” appears in the author’s 1975 collection, “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters”, and it has been widely anthologized.
There isn’t a traditional plot in the story, except in the sense that the story explains a set of actions that are repeated over and over.
The story opens with a description of the idyllic city of Omelas, “bright-towered by the sea,” as its citizens celebrate their annual Festival of Summer. The scene is like a joyous, luxurious fairy tale, with “a clamor of bells” and “swallows soaring.”
Next, the narrator attempts to explain the background of such a happy place, though it becomes clear that he or she doesn’t know all the details about the city. Instead, she invites readers to imagine whatever details suit them, insisting that “it doesn’t matter. As you like it.”
Then the story returns to a description of the festival, with all its flowers and pastry and flutes and nymph-like children racing bareback on their horses. It seems too good to be true, and the narrator asks,
“Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.”
What she explains next is that the city of Omelas keeps one small child in utter degradation in a damp, windowless room in a basement. The child is malnourished and filthy, with festering sores. No one is allowed even to speak a kind word to it, so, though it remembers “sunlight and its mother’s voice,” it has been removed from all human society.
Everyone in Omelas knows about the child. Most have even come to see it for themselves. As Le Guin writes, “They all know that it has to be there.” The child is the price of the utter joy and happiness of the rest of the city.
But the narrator also notes that occasionally, someone who has seen the child will choose not to go home, instead of walking through the city, out the gates, toward the mountains. The narrator has no idea of their destination, but she notes that “they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”
The Narrator and “You”
The narrator repeatedly mentions that she doesn’t know all the details of Omelas. She says, for instance, that she does “not know the rules and laws of their society,” and she imagines that there would not be cars or helicopters not because she knows for sure, but because she doesn’t think cars and helicopters are consistent with happiness.
But she also states that the details don’t really matter, and she uses the second person to invite readers to imagine whatever details would make the city seem happiest to them. For example, the narrator considers that Omelas might strike some readers as “goody-goody.” She advises them, “If so, please add an orgy.” And for readers who can’t imagine a city so happy without recreational drugs, she concocts an imaginary drug called “drooz.”
In this way, the reader becomes implicated in the construction of the joy of Omelas, which perhaps makes it more devastating to discover the source of that joy. While the narrator expresses uncertainty about the details of Ornelas’s happiness, she is entirely certain about the details of the wretched child. She describes everything from the mops “with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads” standing in the corner of the room to the haunting “eh-haa, eh-haa” wailing noise that the child makes at night. She does not leave any room for the reader — who helped construct the joy — to imagine anything that might soften or justify the child’s misery.
No Simple Happiness
The narrator takes great pains to explain that the people of Omelas, though happy, were not “simple folk.” She notes 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.”
At first she offers no evidence to explain the complexity of their happiness, and in fact, her assertion that they are not simple almost sounds defensive. The more the narrator protests, the more a reader might suspect that the citizens of Omelas are, in fact, rather stupid.
When the narrator mentions that the one thing “there is none of in Omelas is guilt,” the reader might reasonably conclude it’s because they have nothing about which to feel guilty. Only later does it become clear that their lack of guilt is a deliberate calculation. Their happiness doesn’t come from innocence or stupidity; it comes from their willingness to sacrifice one human being for the benefit of the rest. Le Guin writes:
“Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. […] It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science.”
Every child in Omelas, upon learning of the wretched child, feels disgusted and outrage and wants to help. But most of them learn to accept the situation, to view the child as hopeless anyway, and to value the perfect lives of the rest of the citizenry. In short, they learn to reject guilt.
The ones who walk away are different. They won’t teach themselves to accept the child’s misery, and they won’t teach themselves to reject the guilt. It’s a given that they are walking away from the most thorough joy anyone has ever known, so there is no doubt that their decision to leave Omelas will erode their own happiness. But perhaps they are walking toward a land of justice, or at least the pursuit of justice, and perhaps they value that more than their own joy. It’s a sacrifice they are willing to make.