Ursula Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973) gives the readers an idyllic view of the city Omelas: snow-capped mountains to the north and the west, boys and girls playing together and riding their horses in the green meadows, birds soaring above fluttering banners, people dancing to lively music. As we see how the citizens of Omelas prepare for the Festival of Summer, the narrator tells us that the setting itself is a utopia. Regardless of how we imagine the nitty-gritty of the city—its technology, religion, and vices (“As you like it,” the narrator says.)—Omelas, the narrator concludes, is peaceful; its people are happy and they feel no guilt.
We later find, though, that the city’s perfection and happiness depend on the suffering of one child. This child is locked up in a broom-closet-sized basement or cellar. The room is dirty, damp, and cold, and the child starves and sits on his or her own excrement away from the mops. No one can identify the child’s sex, so much so the narrator settles for “it.” It is afraid of the mops.
If the child were freed or comforted, the citizens’ happiness, “the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children…even the abundance of their harvest” will vanish. Those are the terms, which outrage many. A handful of citizens leave Omelas because of these, while the rest still stay.
The title of Le Guin’s plotless story draws our attention to those who choose to leave, those who refuse to compromise or to accept that total happiness comes at a great cost. Perhaps we are directed to see merit in people who reject what they deem monstrous and savage. Walking away is surely an option and a step toward that direction. It may be a cowardly choice as those who leave desert the child and let the monstrosity go on. But it could be also noble as they don’t impose their beliefs on everyone else so that all those adhering to the terms will not suffer.
Yet a great chunk of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” deals with the dazzling city and strives to appeal to our favor. Le Guin’s narrator takes great care in laying out the city’s best features:
They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians. I do not know the rules and laws of their society, but I suspect that they were singularly few. As they did without monarchy and slavery, so they also got on without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb.
I think that there would be no cars or helicopters in and above the streets; this follows from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people. Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive. In the middle category, however—that of the unnecessary but undestructive, that of comfort, luxury, exuberance, etc.—they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold.
I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don’t hesitate. Let us not, however, have temples from which issue beautiful nude priests and priestesses already half in ecstasy and ready to copulate with any man or woman, lover or stranger who desires union with the deep godhead of the blood, although that was my first idea. But really it would be better not to have any temples in Omelas—at least, not manned temples. Religion yes, clergy no. Surely the beautiful nudes can just wander about, offering themselves like divine soufflés to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the flesh. Let them join the processions. Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and the glory of desire be proclaimed upon the gongs, and (a not unimportant point) let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all.
There is no doubt then that the work asks us to reflect and form a fair sentiment on what it means to stay in Omelas considering the hefty price. Its citizens have known about the suffering child since they were at least eight years old, yet they agreed to the terms in spite of their hot tears. The narrator tells us that it is precisely because of the suffering child that the citizens treat their children kindly. Several times in the work the narrator tells us that their happiness is not rooted in folly. (“Yet I repeat that these were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians,” “Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness.”)
That can only mean that they cherish their happiness because they know their perfect world comes at an abominable trade-off, and because the child must not suffer for nothing.
That mentality has tones of compassion.
Those who stay understand and accept this “terrible justice of reality”: peace and prosperity for all in exchange for a miserable child. They brood over the circumstance for weeks or years, but, as the narrator tells us, they realize that releasing the child will only be in vain:
It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in.
It sounds as if the people are making excuses for their decision, which is in bad taste. But perhaps one can sympathize; people tell themselves things to assuage the anger, frustration, and helplessness they feel. Choosing to stay isn’t easy for everybody.
Some of us judge the ethics or philosophy of the people of Omelas, or dismiss them as harsh (or worse, monsters) for letting a child suffer for their benefit. Yet doing so isn’t fair, and neglects what the narrator tells us of them. The judgments we readers have must account for the fact that those who stay are willing to make true, unimaginable sacrifices for what they believe is the greater and common good. On the surface level they sacrifice a child’s happiness and future. On a deeper one, they sacrifice moral convenience—that is, an easy way out of life’s complexities and an end to their outrage and helplessness. It’s a conscious choice of people who want a safe and comfortable life not just for themselves, but for their neighbor as well. The narrator states: “It is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives.”
Upon closer inspection, Omelas seems more like our reality than a utopia, with the suffering of a small group of people bringing the greatest good to many. More to the point: Our world is a utopia like Omelas. Some people suffer and do the dirty work so we may live a good, happy, and fruitful life. Perhaps the difference between our world and Omelas is that, at least for us individuals and depending on the situation, many suffer.
While there are priceless joys, there are those that come with some trade-offs. And for the joys that do, perhaps what counts is that we know the price and what we do upon knowing it. Does one leave everything behind, ignore the price, or make the most out of the situation? The ones who stay in Omelas, to their credit, opt for the third. They acknowledge the trade-off and choose to treasure the happiness and peace of their society, and choose to be kinder to others. Whether or not the decision to stay suits us, the outcome is not disagreeable because the people made it so.