- 1 Why is there no guilt in Omelas
- 1.1 How does Omelas relate to real life?
- 1.2 Why does the child in Omelas remain in the basement?
- 1.3 The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K Le Guin – Short Story Summary, Analysis, Review
- 2 What is the dark secret of Omelas
- 3 What happens to those who leave Omelas
- 4 What is the key to happiness in Omelas
Why is there no guilt in Omelas
As Le Guin puts it, ‘one thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt’ (1509). The people, acting on their ownself-interest and selfishness, believed that if they were to feel guilty and help the child, ‘all theprosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed’ (Le Guin 1511).
What does the child symbolize in Omelas?
The child symbolizes the injustice and inhumanity that is present in society. People in Omelas are able to live with the idea of the child in the basement because they are living a happy life and are not directly affected by the child.
How does Omelas relate to real life?
The people of Omelas could allow their lives to become slightly worse and save the imprisoned child. In the same way, people in the real world could pay more for manufactured goods and help end child slavery.
Why does the child in Omelas remain in the basement?
Opinion | The Child in the Basement (Published 2015) Maybe you’re familiar with Ursula Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It’s about a sweet and peaceful city with lovely parks and delightful music. The people in the city are genuinely happy.
They enjoy their handsome buildings and a “magnificent” farmers’ market. Le Guin describes a festival day with delicious beer and horse races: “An old woman, small, fat, and laughing, is passing out flowers from a basket, and tall young men wear her flowers in their shining hair. A child of nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd, alone, playing on a wooden flute.” It is an idyllic, magical place.
But then Le Guin describes one more feature of Omelas. In the basement of one of the buildings, there is a small broom-closet-sized room with a locked door and no windows. A small child is locked inside the room. It looks about 6, but, actually, the child is nearly 10.
“It is feebleminded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition and neglect.” Occasionally, the door opens and people look in. The child used to cry out, “Please let me out. I will be good!” But the people never answered and now the child just whimpers. It is terribly thin, lives on a half-bowl of cornmeal a day and must sit in its own excrement.
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K Le Guin – Short Story Summary, Analysis, Review
“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas,” Le Guin writes. “Some of them have come to see it; others are content merely to know it is there. They all know it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children,
- Depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” That is the social contract in Omelas.
- One child suffers horribly so that the rest can be happy.
- If the child were let free or comforted, Omelas would be destroyed.
- Most people feel horrible for the child, and some parents hold their kids tighter, and then they return to their happiness.
But some go to see the child in the room and then keep walking. They don’t want to be part of that social contract. “They leave Omelas; they walk ahead into the darkness and they do not come back.” In one reading this is a parable about exploitation. According to this reading, many of us live in societies whose prosperity depends on some faraway child in the basement.
When we buy a cellphone or a piece of cheap clothing, there is some exploited worker — a child in the basement. We tolerate exploitation, telling each other that their misery is necessary for overall affluence, though maybe it’s not. In another reading, the story is a challenge to the utilitarian mind-set so prevalent today.
In theory, most of us subscribe to a set of values based on the idea that a human being is an end not a means. You can’t justifiably use a human being as an object. It is wrong to enslave a person, even if that slavery might produce a large good. It is wrong to kill a person for his organs, even if many lives might be saved.
- And yet we don’t actually live according to that moral imperative.
- Life is filled with tragic trade-offs.
- In many different venues, the suffering of the few is justified by those trying to deliver the greatest good for the greatest number.
- Companies succeed because they fire people, even if a whole family depends on them.
Schools become prestigious because they reject people — even if they put a lifetime of work into their application. Leaders fighting a war on terror accidentally kill innocents. These are children in the basement of our survival and happiness. The story compels readers to ask if they are willing to live according to those contracts.
- Some are not.
- They walk away from prosperity, and they make some radical commitment.
- They would rather work toward some inner purity.
- The rest of us live with the trade-offs.
- The story reminds us of the inner numbing this creates.
- The people who stay in Omelas aren’t bad; they just find it easier and easier to live with the misery they depend upon.
I’ve found that this story rivets people because it confronts them with all the tragic compromises built into modern life — all the children in the basements — and, at the same time, it elicits some desire to struggle against bland acceptance of it all.
Is Omelas a utopia or dystopia?
Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Those Who Walk Away From Omelas’ Le Guin’s ‘Those Who Walk Away From Omelas’ employs dystopian elements because the story, like other dystopian works, warns about societies with trapped citizens, living in a supposedly perfect city, who fail to question the structure of their society.
What is the purpose of the Omelas story?
It is the Festival of Summer in the city of Omelas by the sea. Everyone in the city is celebrating and dancing as they parade northward through the streets toward “the great water-meadow called the Green Fields,” where naked children sit astride horses, preparing for a race.
- Everyone is going to watch the horse race.
- Banners flutter in the wind, marking the course that the race will take.
- As bells clang joyously, the entire city is filled with music and merriment.
- This opening scene portrays a seemingly perfect society in which everyone is happy.
- It sets up the theme of society versus the individual by depicting the joyous society of Omelas.
The scene also introduces the theme of Coming of Age by focusing on the children of Omelas and their idyllic, innocent childhood. This opening description of Omelas is crucial in establishing the stakes of the story. The audience must first see this society as perfect in order to later understand the full cost of such apparent perfection.
The narrator pauses to contemplate the difficulty of describing a city of happiness to an audience conditioned to think of happiness as dull and “simple.” The narrator calls out this assumption as false, insisting that strife is a monotonous subject, and further, is only recognizable in contrast to happiness.
Not only is it false to equate happiness with stupidity, it is dangerous. Artists have perpetuated this myth, so much so that society has largely forgotten how to describe happiness and smiles have become “archaic.” This is the first point where the narrator “breaks the fourth wall” by speaking directly to the reader and begins to establish the story as an allegory by suggesting Omelas is an imaginary city that is therefore difficult to describe.
- Part of this difficulty, the narrator explains, has to do with the audience’s preconceived notions about happiness and suffering—another important theme in the story.
- In criticizing modern society’s romanticized view of suffering as interesting and happiness as uninteresting, the narrator prods the reader to open their mind to happiness as a complex emotion that exists in constant relation to suffering.
The narrator clarifies the nature of the city’s happiness. The citizens of Omelas are happy, but not naïve or unintelligent. Their definition of happiness follows from a tripartite distinction: they understand the difference between what is necessary; what is unnecessary but not destructive; and what is destructive.
- The narrator invites the reader to imagine Omelas as they wish, so long as nothing about the city falls into the category of “destructive”.
- Thus, Omelas may have “central heating, subway trains, washing machines, a cure for the common cold.
- Or they could have none of that; it doesn’t matter.” The narrator reveals the city’s imaginary status as they describe Omelas in more and more theoretical terms.
The exact details of Omelas do not matter, so long as the reader is able to imagine a city that conforms to the narrator’s loose description. The narrator continues to emphasize the theme of happiness and suffering by describing in greater detail the principles on which Omelas’s happiness is founded, and introducing the concepts of necessity and destructiveness as important variables in calculating that happiness.
- Here, the narrator explicitly directs the reader to use their imagination to fill in the details of Omelas for themselves, and in doing so reveals that Omelas is not an actual place so much as an idea.
- In this way, the narrator further reinforces the idea that the story is to be read as an allegory in which the society of Omelas is a stand-in for the ideal society.
Notably, many aspects and inventions of modern society are absent from the narrator’s summation of what is allowed in the city according to their tripartite distinction, and this is presumably because these things fall into the “destructive” category.
These differences invite the audience to compare Omelas to their own society and examine which parts of it may be destructive. Still, the narrator worries that Omelas may strike the reader as too perfect, too strictly adherent to rules to be an ideal society. The narrator insists that these guidelines for happiness still allow for a certain amount of hedonism, and encourages the reader again to imagine the city however they like: “if an orgy would help” the city seem more utopic, “don’t hesitate.” The narrator imagines that in Omelas there is religion but no clergy, sex and nudity are celebrated publicly, and “the offspring of these delightful rituals” of desire are “beloved and looked after by all.” Again, the narrator makes a direct appeal to the reader’s imagination, imploring readers to leave aside their preconceived notions about happiness as they strain to imagine the city of Omelas.
The narrator expands on the distinction they drew earlier between the destructive and the necessary, and clarifies that the perimeters of “non-destructive and necessary” still allow for fun and pleasure in Omelas. As the narrator asks the reader to imagine Omelas in greater and greater detail, they also invite the reader to become increasingly invested in the society.
- Again, the noticeable differences between Omelas and modern society invite the audience to allegorize the city.
- I thought at first there were not drugs” in Omelas, the narrator writes, “but that is puritanical.” Thus, the narrator supposes, there is an ecstasy-inducing drug named drooz in Omelas, and it is not even habit-forming.
However, few people would need drooz, the narrator suspects, because the city feels “a boundless and generous contentment” all the time anyway. The city celebrates victory and courage, but has no soldiers—”the victory they celebrate is that of life.” There is no guilt in Omelas.
- The themes of Happiness and Suffering and Imagination and Allegory continue to entangle when the narrator considers the presence of drugs and war in Omelas.
- The narrator invites the reader to imagine how drugs and victory might exist in a way that doesn’t depend on destruction.
- The narrator strains to imagine pleasure without destruction in considering drugs and victory’s existence in Omelas, nodding to one of the story’s moral lessons: that happiness always exists in relation to suffering.
Again, while the narrator does not explicitly ask the reader to compare their own society to Omelas, the calculated differences between Omelas and the reader’s society encourage the reader to allegorize the city of Omelas. The narrator returns to the Festival of Summer.
The parades of people have mostly reached the fields where the children’s horse race is held. The scene is impossibly idyllic. There is good food, and the children’s faces are “amiably sticky”. An old woman passes out flowers. A boy plays the flute as children ready their horses at the starting line, speaking to them gently and affectionately: “Quiet, quiet, there my beauty, my hope.” The crowd flanking the racecourse looks like a field.
The narrator announces to the reader that “the Festival of Summer has begun,” then pauses to ask the reader directly whether they believe in this scene: “Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy?” If not, the narrator will reveal one more detail about Omelas.
After exploring happiness in Omelas at length, the narrator returns to the picturesque scene of the Festival of Summer. The theme of the individual versus society resurfaces as the narrator focuses on the city’s society moving as one organic being. Again, the narrator pays special attention to the children of Omelas, describing their joy and emotional attentiveness to their horses, and generally portraying childhood in Omelas as idealistic.
This is significant because it lays the groundwork for what the narrator will later reveal about these children’s coming of age. The narrator again breaks the fourth wall as they ask readers whether they believe in the scene. Thus, the reader’s imagination is tested once again.
In supposing that the reader does not believe the scene, the narrator gestures toward the story’s explicitly allegorical—rather than realistic—presentation. The narrator seems to suggest that, if a reader cannot believe in a fully happy society, this must reflect something about the reader’s beliefs about human society in general.
In a dark, windowless room in a basement beneath one of the city’s public buildings lives a malnourished child, The room is tiny, about the size of a broom closet. The child shares the room with a couple of “clotted, foul-smelling” mops and a rusty bucket.
The narrator suggests that the child’s gender is irrelevant, and refers to the child using the pronoun “it”. The child is severely underdeveloped both physically and mentally; “it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.” The child is terrified of the mops and shuts its eyes in fear, but nothing will ever change.
“The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes,” except, on occasion, a person (or a few), to refill the child’s water jug and food bowl. The people who come to the door do not speak to the child, only “peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes.” The narrator moves from the bird’s eye view of thriving Omelas society to a close-up on an individual child whose dark, miserable, and lonely experience contrasts dramatically the Festival of Summer unfolding aboveground.
Whereas until now the narrator has focused on depicting the great happiness of Omelas as a whole, they now turn their focus to the other half of the equation: a suffering individual. The child experiences suffering in all aspects of its life: mental, emotional, and physical. Its existence could not be more different from the idyllic childhood of the other Omelas youths.
The narrator focuses on the child’s stunted growth to highlight how the child is denied its own coming of age or even a sense of selfhood. The child has not always lived in the locked room. In fact, it remembers “sunlight and its mother’s voice.” Though no one speaks to the child, the child begs the people who visit it for release, promising to “be good.” The narrator reveals that the child used to scream and cry constantly, but after years of neglect, it now only whimpers pathetically, and hardly ever speaks.
It is naked, gaunt, and covered in festering sores from sitting “in its own excrement continually.” Its stomach is bloated from starvation, for “it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day.” The story returns to the relationship between happiness and suffering when the narrator mentions the child’s memory of its mother and sunlight.
Because the child has experienced these moments of happiness, it has a frame of reference in which to contextualize its current state of misery. The child desperately wants to be released, and begs its visitors for help. Where the cries and noise from the Festival of Summer indicated joy and a sense of community, the child’s cries and noises indicate abject misery and loneliness.
While the children of Omelas are naked because they are free of shame, the child is naked because it lacks proper care. While the children of Omelas eat treats at the Festival of Summer, the child is limited to corn meal and grease. This child’s existence is not a secret. Everyone in Omelas knows about it, whether they have seen the child personally or simply know of its existence.
Every citizen knows that everything good in their lives (“their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers”) exists because of this child’s suffering.
Some citizens understand why this is, while others do not, but all understand that the perfection of Omelas depends on the child’s abject misery. After contrasting the child’s loneliness and suffering with the happy society of Omelas, the narrator reveals that everyone in Omelas knows about this awful contrast and still, no one does anything to help the child.
Happiness versus Suffering and the Individual versus Society are not just implicit themes in this text—rather, the extreme contrast between the suffering of the individual and the happiness of society is the very foundation of Omelas. While all societies have some imbalance between the happiness of some and the suffering of others, the extreme and seemingly arbitrary law of Omelas (that one child must suffer for everyone else’s happiness) throws such imbalances into sharp relief.
Learning about the child’s existence is a sort of coming-of-age ritual in Omelas—an experience each child has, usually between the ages of eight and twelve. Despite the justifications they are given, each child reacts in disgust and anger. Their first instinct is to help the child out of its miserable situation, though they are able to override this instinct by reminding themselves that helping the child will ruin everyone else’s happiness, causing “all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas” to “wither and be destroyed.” There is no way around this predicament.
The narrator states that “the terms are strict and absolute,” though they never state why this is the case. Thus, to live in Omelas is to accept this child’s misery as a condition of one’s happiness. The narrator explains that learning of this awful imbalance—that the citizens of Omelas only experience happiness because of one child’s awful suffering—is how one comes of age in Omelas.
Because the children of Omelas experience perfect and idealistic childhoods, their first reaction to the suffering child is outrage that it is subjected to such an unfair rule, and disgust for the child’s condition (as well as the fact that every adult in Omelas, the people who have raised them to be good and moral, are complicit in this child’s suffering).
The narrator creates an important thematic opposition between happiness and suffering, and between the individual and society, by emphasizing the strict nature of Omelas’s rules: all happiness for the whole society must rely on the complete misery of an individual child.
- Despite the initial trauma of learning about the child, most citizens come to justify their inaction.
- For some it takes weeks, for others, years, but eventually almost everyone comes to accept the predicament.
- The narrator runs through their reasoning: even if the child were released, it would not be able to experience much joy due to its underdevelopment.
“It has been afraid too long to ever be free of fear,” they reason, and they are not cruel for neglecting the child, since they are helpless to change its circumstances. The children’s “tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it.” Although the idealistic children initially react with compassion (as they have been raised to be moral), each child ultimately finds their own way of justifying their inaction and neglect of the suffering child.
- This is the true coming of age ritual of Omelas: learning how to justify one’s immoral actions, given the amoral nature of reality.
- As the children come of age in Omelas, they come into their place in a society that depends on its members’ ability to turn a blind eye to injustice.
- Thus, the children are bound to the rest of Omelas society by their knowledge of the suffering child and their collective neglect.
Growing up in Omelas requires children to understand the true and tragic price of their society’s happiness. The people of Omelas do not forget about the child’s misery. Rather, their understanding of the child’s misery allows them to more deeply understand and appreciate their own happiness.
- The narrator assures the audience that “Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness.” They understand that they are indebted to the child for its suffering.
- As much as the child is a slave to its misery, the people of Omelas are enslaved to the child’s situation—all are powerless to change the terms of their existence.
None are truly free. The narrator clarifies that, while the people of Omelas justify neglecting a suffering child, they do not take this decision lightly. The knowledge of the suffering child forces the citizens of Omelas to recognize the interrelated nature of happiness and suffering.
- Even though they realize that they are indebted to the child, they refuse to help it.
- In this passage, the narrator explains that, at least in Omelas, happiness cannot exist without suffering, and that accepting this reality is how one grows up and truly joins society.
- Even though the citizens of Omelas are the ones who benefit from the extreme dictum that the child must suffer for the whole of society’s happiness, they know that they are locked into this structure as much as the child is locked in its broom closet.
The narrator pauses to ask the audience if they believe in Omelas now, after learning about the child, The narrator suggests that this cruel situation makes Omelas “more credible.” Yet, there is another detail about Omelas that is “quite incredible.” The narrator suggests that Omelas’s terrible secret is what makes it “more credible” to the reader, implying that the reader finds a city with a cruel, unjust secret to be more realistic than a city of perfect happiness.
This invites the reader to examine their expectations for happiness in their own society, and encourages the reader to allegorize Omelas. The narrator suggests that what one can and cannot imagine is always deeply reflective of one’s own reality. If it is impossible for the reader to imagine a truly happy society, this impasse must reflect on the reader’s own societal experiences.
Though most citizens of Omelas come to accept the awful predicament of the child’s misery, some do not. Sometimes citizens decide to reject the terms of life in Omelas—something they can only do by leaving the city, alone, in total silence. These citizens walk into the darkness beyond Omelas and never come back.
The narrator does not know where they go, for it is impossible to imagine—the place might not even exist. Still, the ones who walk away from Omelas do so with a sense of purpose, seeming “to know where they are going.” While the theme of the individual versus society has previously come out in the contrast between the individual child’s suffering and the collective happiness of Omelas society, Le Guin ends the story by introducing individualism in a new way: through the difficult decision made by “the ones who walk away.” Though citizens are unable to change the structure that requires the child to suffer for the city’s happiness, citizens can choose to disengage with Omelas society altogether by leaving Omelas.
Leaving Omelas is an ultimate act of individualism, as it requires one to reject the comfort of society in a stand for one’s own sense of morality. The narrator does not say whether walking away is right or wrong, but once more asks the audience to reflect on the limits of their own ability to imagine an alternative to a city like Omelas.
What is the dark secret of Omelas
Answer and Explanation: The dark secret is that the happiness in Omelas is contingent upon the populace’s acceptance of one act of injustice. A child is kept locked in a windowless room and is only treated with hatred or indifference.
What is the child afraid of in Omelas?
It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come.
What is ironic about the city of Omelas?
Omelas is not a perfect city. The title and the detailed descriptions of Omelas reveal Omelas as a city that seems great and full of joy but inherently evil.
Why are the people of Omelas so happy?
In Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, the setting takes place right by the sea in a city named Omelas. In the city of Omelas the people are very mature, intelligent, and live complex lives. The citizens of Omelas tend to be happy, and their happiness is based on the misery of a mistreated child.
- The child lives under Omelas in a dreadful cellar.
- In the cellar, the child lives in a small room and is surrounded by its own waste.
- Omelas is a perfect city and the cellar room is a vile place, but between those two settings, the people both have a false assumption of the idea of happiness.
- The city of Omelas is a utopia which consists of a wonderful setting.
Omelas’ surroundings are described to be flawless, lively, and to be encircled by mountains. According to the narrator, “Omelas sounds like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away” (2). The city’s residents, buildings, and its location are a main factor in the beauty of Omelas.
- The people are joyous, the buildings are well decorated, and the city is located right by the sea.
- Though Omelas is a wonderful city, under it, there is a horrendous cellar room containing a child.
- The cellar which contains the child is an atrocious room.
- The child lives in its own feces and is only allowed half a show more content Joy and happiness is brought up throughout the entire story.
It seems as everyone in the story knows what joy is, “we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid” (1). The citizens of Omelas think happiness is pain, which is guaranteed from the child’s misery.
Is Omelas really a utopia?
On the surface, Omelas has all the trappings of a utopian society. There is no war or economic insecurity. No one is homeless or in need for anything. However, at its core, Omelas is built upon suffering.
Why do most people stay in Omelas?
In 1973 Ursula K. Le Guin wrote the short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, a parable on injustice and responsibility. It tells the story of the city of Omelas and how its happiness relied on the inhumane conditions in which a child lived locked in a cellar.
- Those who walked away from Omelas were the few who rejected the unfair living situation of the child.
- Omelas’s terms were that if the child leaves the cellar, the joy and fortune of its citizens will end.
- The ones that left the prosperous city could do nothing but refuse their lack of freedom.
- Staying in Omelas meant to live knowing that a child was sacrificed for their good life.
They thought they could not live feeling guilty, angry, and impotent. By leaving, they expressed their disagreement with the unfair conditions of the child. This text reflects my first impressions after visiting Omelas. It is part of my ethnobotanical research on the transduction of sentient signals into human languages.
- I have learned the technique of transduction in Plant Studies.
- I am specialized in the transduction of vegetable signals such as movement, shape, taste, smell, color, but also pollination and photosynthesis.
- I have chosen Omelas as my case study because it is one of the first cities in the world taken over by plants.
Thus, it is also the first example of a Planthropocene area in the world. Planthropocene is the new geological epoch in which humans have developed a collaborative way of living with plants instead of killing them, as it was the case of the Anthropocene.
- Transduction is an unreliable method used by humans to attune to the sentience of vegetables.
- Signals from vegetation are generally imperceptible and intangible.
- They do not know about time or space boundaries, so for humans to tune with them, they need sensory perceptions beyond our common ones.
- For example, this is by understanding the meaning of a certain plant movement or internal processes invisible to the human eye.
Vegetation does not talk to humans, but humans can listen, read, and interpret what they say. I like to think transduction is a way of becoming-with the sentient world to access their ways of knowing and telling. What follows is my reconstruction of what happened to the ones who stayed in Omelas through the stories I transduced from Omelas’ vegetation.
When I arrived at Omelas, my first stop was at the path that leads to the entryway of the city. The coastal flowers – lavender, sea kale, and rosemary – that surround the entrance introduced me to a time that did not exist anymore. I sat on a rock and smelled the breeze of Omelas in 1973. The city was dressed in handmade garlands of flowers for the Festival of Summer.
Everybody enjoyed the celebration, but the child locked in the cellar only knew it by the smell and sounds that reached her place. This is the Omelas Le Guin told us about over seventy years ago. Today, none of its joy and fortune is as it used to be. Although it is still a very prosperous land, vegetation had devoured Omelas by 2051 and the ones who stayed had to learn to live in a completely new land.
As I walked up the town hall square at the center of Omelas, I found my second stop: the house with the storeroom where the child used to be locked. At the site where the house was, there are many cherry trees in full blossom among weeds. The trees in a white and pale pink spread down the road in a line that feels infinite.
The view was striking. As a transducer, I have never entangled and interpreted the sentience of such beautiful trees. I laid on the floor and I transduced from the rhythm of the roots of the cherry trees growing underground. The child in the cellar grew into a woman.
- Custodians kept her and brought her food and water, sometimes they also superficially cleaned the floor of feces.
- Those were their general tasks.
- But as soon as the child grew into a woman, some custodians got closer to her.
- They gave her clothes and period pads, also books to learn to write and read.
- These were kept hidden among the tools in the storeroom because not all the custodians saw her confinement as inhumane, and they would have interpreted these improvements as a threat to their own well-being.
I suspect that there must have been indifferent keepers, for they raped the woman at least three times if I count her known children. Her voice was gone since she realized that no one would listen to her calls for help. She kept out of sight from the eyes that fed her and nobody knew what she looked like.
Neither did anyone try to communicate with her. The custodians always thought they were the only ones that could open the door to her cellar. But when her children could walk, they took control of their own key to the door. They sneaked out at night and collected food from the trash, stole seeds from gardens, fruits from public trees, flowers from the coast, and whatever they considered edible or useful.
I call the infants of the woman Omelas’ Children. They transformed the town at night and slept during the day. They did not have a plan except to survive and tell the story of their mother. The night seemed the safest time of the day to leave the cellar.
They did not want to test what kind of risk would have been entailed in being seen by Omelas’ inhabitants. They were gleaners and burglars, but mostly seeders. They spent their time awake fertilizing soil and growing all kinds of plants around Omelas. They used uncommon places to cultivate them, from patches of the earth not covered by the pavement to the gap left by a missing tile on the sidewalk.
This included the small pieces of land between the end of a garden and the next one, and even between a house and the beginning of the road. They did not know about private property, but they knew the ground, weeds, and wildflowers. Omelas’ Children planted seeds across the city and changed Omelas’ economy radically.
Throughout the years, trees and vegetables grew between private gardens of different neighbors, forcing them to share their harvest. Omelas had an excess of vegetables and fruits. There were plenty of tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, pumpkin, and carrots to feed a city three times bigger than Omelas. Lemon, orange, apple, cherry, and almond trees took root in the streets, and some of them closed down to pedestrians because of the uncontrollable growth of vegetation.
But Omelas’ inhabitants adapted to the new flora and exploited it as far as they could. They organized themselves in groups of gardeners to collect and preserve the vegetation. Also, they sold their harvest to neighboring towns and in the Farmer’s Market.
- My last stop was the green meadow on the opposite side of Omelas’ bay.
- By then I had traveled all the natural paths that are still accessible to humans.
- I saw some people walking past, but they ignored me because they know I am a foreigner.
- Even though Omelas’ citizens denied the story of the woman in the cellar, they are ashamed.
They are very defensive towards outsiders who ask about the cellar or the woman and her children. I believe that their unique way of living has shaped their unsympathetic character. Omelas is a self-sufficient organism composed by the entanglement of plants and humans, they are independent from the rest of the earth.
They live without human-made architectures or technologies. They build their houses and tools with the biotechnologies they have created in cooperation with the vegetable world. I had to learn the art of transduction to understand vegetation, but I am sure that Omelas’ citizens use it daily to communicate with their environment.
They probably have a very refined multi-sensorial capacity to perceive and send information to Omelas’ flora. I am confused about how Omelas transformed radically after Le Guin’s story. The inhabitants of this magical city did not consciously choose to collaborate with plants because of environmental reasons.
Omelas’ Children forced and urged them. They ended up transforming the region of the town, but Omelas’ Children started out with the need to survive in a city where they did not officially exist. They had no birth certificate, passport, or education. No one knew that the woman in the cellar had children.
They had nowhere else to go. Living in kinship with the plant world was their best option to survive. Omelas’ Children changed the geology of this part of the world so they could eat every day. I learned more about Omelas’ Children on my way out of the town where bee orchids grew by the road near the meadow.
- They were yellow and violet.
- Altogether, they looked like a psychedelic cloud that I tasted and transduced from the other side of the road.
- Omelas’ Children planted the bee orchids to honor the death of their mother and the vegetable world.
- I don’t know if the mother ever left the cellar but for sure she stayed in Omelas and encouraged her children to live and learn from vegetation.
They made kin with the plants by discovering and adapting to each other’s modes of sensing, perceiving and communicating. That is why vegetation carries their story. It is not a coincidence that Omelas’ Children opted for bee orchids as the symbol that best represents the power of plants to store information that otherwise would perish.
- As xkcd interpreted in the cartoon below, the shape of the bee orchid tells the story of the extinct bee.
- The bee orchid is “an idea of what the female bee looked like to the male bee as interpreted by a plant the only memory of the bee is a painting by a dying flower.” The bee orchids that grew in Omelas are a symbol of the memory of Omelas’ Children and their mother.
The ones who stayed in Omelas lived in a symbiotic relationship with strangers: first with the woman and her children, and after with the vegetable world. This form of living turned Omelas into an ever-expanding forest that became the first area of the Planthropocene epoch.
- The relationship between the child locked in the cellar room and Omelas’ inhabitants was an unfair one.
- The new entanglement between Omelas’ Children and the ones who stayed in Omelas was a relationship of intimacy that evolved in a new geography of living creatures.
- Like how bacterias transform and depend on the bodies they inhabit, Omelas’ Children metamorphosed and relied upon Omelas.
They used vegetation as their canvas to keep alive their mother and her story. What other stories Omelas’ flora store in its roots, flowers, and branches are still to be transduced.
Does Omelas seem to be a utopia?
By Zilu Mou “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a short story written by Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, and it is a special story worthy of attention due to its underlying complexity despite it being a very simple story on the surface. Personally, this tale is a very meaningful experience because it touches upon many important aspects of humanity.
- The story takes place in the City of Omelas, which is a very beautiful city right next to the sea, and it follows the citizens of Omelas who are preparing and celebrating the start of the Festival of Summer.
- The story is not character driven, but rather, it is filled with descriptions of the city and the narrator’s dialogue with the readers.
At the beginning, the readers are invited by the narrator to imagine this city according to their ideals. This premise seems promising at the beginning because we are given the liberty to fulfill our desires, but the startling revelation about the child prisoner whose misery is the key to this city’s happiness and prosperity bursts our bubble of imagination. © Audrey Schafer There are several themes that this short story has chosen to explore, and one of them is exploitation within a society. In the story, the child is the exploited one even though we are told that he or she did nothing wrong to be placed in that position in the first place.
- Essentially, this division between the child and the citizens of Omelas is a form of class division.
- The “upper class” in the story, the citizens, seem to have adopted a worldview based on utilitarian principles by putting the well-being of a city, not the child, as the top priority.
- This situation is an interesting take on the class division because the “exploited” class normally constitutes the majority of people, the working class, in a capitalist society.
In Omelas, there is only one child who must suffer to maintain the “egalitarian” society even though her/his condition is arguably worse than a typical middle-class citizen. But while class inequality is an important element in the story, it is actually also a set-up for exploring one’s ability to make choices through a comparison of the citizens who have left Omelas after learning the true origin of their happiness and those who stay in the city.
The people who left are the ones who successfully protect their humanity by choosing the moral course of action unlike most citizens in Omelas who consciously try to rationalize their absolute control over the child. The text provides no hints as to the leavers’ destination, which implies that their journey is filled with uncertainty.
Even though leaving the city might not guarantee any further changes, these citizens have done their parts by choosing not to comply with public opinion. This situation is similar to our modern capitalist societies in which we have to actively participate in order to live.
- But whether we exploit the lower-class people who are already controlled by the elites or not sometimes remains our decision to make.
- Le Guin herself has said that the power of capitalism seems inescapable, but so did the power of kings.
- Any human power can be resisted and changed by us.
- Wahlquist, 2018) Finally, the story also touches upon utopianism.
The term “Utopia” was first used by Sir Thomas More, and its definition is, unironically, “nowhere” (Britannica, 2019). But places like Omelas may imply that the classical definition of “Utopia” might only touch some aspects of an utopian society. In Omelas, the citizens were able to create a seemingly perfect civilization, a place where everything is exactly the way it is supposed to be, but the readers are partially guilty too by participating in their own mental construction of this world before they realize that their pleasures are derived based on the sufferings of a child. © Audrey Schafer There are a lot of themes involved in the story, but I think that the “utopian” aspect deserves a deeper analysis because, while it is not as apparent as other major themes, it does serve as a foundation of the story. As mentioned above, the term “utopia” refers to a place that does not exist and actually, the name itself already denies the possibility of designing a “perfect” society.
In this story, by hiding the reason for Omelas’ happiness until the end, Le Guin not only wants us to question ourselves as to the price of building such a society, but she also wants us to consider the human costs of our privilege of living in our existing, modern, developed society which is far from being qualified as “good”, let alone an actual utopia.
Additionally, the child prisoner serves as a warning, a cautionary tale for those who want to build a utopia because in most cases, in the process of building it, some people will lose their humanity. At the end of the day, we all have different ideas as to the utopian model which would please everyone because our motivations and our worldviews are never really the same.
So, building your own ideal society may pleases individuals who think like you, but for others, your “utopian” society is their vision of a dystopia. In the case of Omelas, the citizens have chosen to ignore the horrifying reality for the sake of maintaining a seemingly flawless community, but ironically, their heartlessness is the single reason why the readers see Omelas as a dystopian society rather than a utopian one.
In conclusion, Ursula Le Guin’s short story is a fantastic piece of literature which is still relevant in 2019 for its social criticisms and its ethical lessons. For instance, the story condemns human greed, and it serves as a cautionary tale of greed’s tremendous danger.
- In the story, the child is the elephant in the room.
- In the real world, we all have tendency to avoid tackling hard problems that affect us all, like global warming, the inefficiency of humanitarian aid, to name a few.
- We ignore these problems because humans not only do not like to deal with situations which are not an immediate threat to our survival.
But also, because there are always corporate or governmental interests that are too powerful to tackle. Next, by presenting to us a moral dilemma in the story, which is the well-being of a child versus the well-being of a city, Le Guin forces us to question our own priorities.
- This situation is relevant to our current discussion on the price of technological and economic progress.
- As we all know, the wealth inequality is currently increasing at a startling rate.
- Some people will be left behind, and others will be able to join the next phase of human advancement.
- We should rethink our current way of measuring success and wealth because, if the well-being of one group of people is built upon the misery of others, what does this say about our current economical system as a whole? After all, our society is not very different from the city of Omelas, and in many ways, we are the citizens of Omelas.
We may have limited options to take, but refusing to support the system is worth consideration. Revision : Laura Camila Penuela Works Cited Britannica, T.E. (2019, mars). Encyclopaedia Britannica, Retrieved from Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/utopia#accordion-article-history Le Guin, U.
Does Omelas have guilt?
Insight Into ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ by Le Guin “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a by American writer, It won the 1974 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, which is given annually for a science fiction or fantasy story. This particular work of Le Guin’s appears in her 1975 collection, “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters,” and it has been widely,
- There isn’t a traditional to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” except in the sense that it 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 attempts to explain the background of such a happy place, though it becomes clear that they don’t know all the details about the city. Instead, they invite 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 the narrator 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 all but removed from 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 walking through the city, out the gates, and toward the mountains.
The narrator has no idea of their destination, but they note that the people “seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.” The narrator repeatedly mentions that they don’t know all the details of Omelas. They say, for instance, that they do “not know the rules and laws of their society,” and they imagine that there would not be cars or helicopters, not because they know for sure, but because they don’t think cars and helicopters are consistent with happiness.
But the narrator also states that the details don’t really matter, and they use 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.” They advise, “If so, please add an orgy.” And for readers who can’t imagine a city so happy without recreational drugs, they concoct an imaginary drug called “drooz.” In this way, 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 Omelas’s happiness, they are entirely certain about the details of the wretched child. They describe 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.
- They do not leave any room for the reader—who helped construct the joy—to imagine anything that might soften or justify the child’s misery.
- The narrator takes great pains to explain that the people of Omelas, though happy, were not “simple folk.” They note 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, the narrator offers no evidence to explain the complexity of the people’s happiness; in fact, the 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 outraged 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.
What happens to those who leave Omelas
The story begins with a narrator’s description of the Festival of Summer in the city of Omelas, a town by the sea. The atmosphere is festive and reverent, with bells ringing out and the boats in the harbor displaying hung flags. The people of Omelas parade happily through the streets of the beautiful city as swallows fly overhead.
- There is music, and in some parts of the city, people are dancing.
- Women carry their babies and children run about in the sunshine.
- Everyone is walking toward the Green Fields, where young boys and girls, all nude, ready horses for a race.
- The horses are excited, and they are decorated with colorful ribbons and very little riding gear.
The clear air reveals the mountains around Omelas, capped with snow. A light breeze flutters the banners around the racecourse as the happy city crowd approaches. The narrator pauses here and begins to reflect upon the description of the Festival they have just given.
The narrator wonders how to describe the joy and the citizens of Omelas, and notes that the description of the Festival might lead to certain assumptions. For example, one might assume the people have a king, but they do not. Nor do they have many, if any, laws. One might also assume that because the people of Omelas are happy, they are simple.
The narrator laments this assumption as rooted in the sense many people have that happiness is always bland, and that only evil can be complex. But if we praise evil as interesting, this only makes it harder to celebrate joy. It is therefore difficult to describe the people of Omelas because, despite their happiness, they are not simple people.
- Just because they do not have any of the trappings of our modern world, such as the stock market or the nuclear bomb, does not make them less complex than us.
- The narrator then wishes they could convince the reader of the complexity of the people of Omelas and admits that their description won’t satisfy everyone’s doubts.
The narrator then invites the reader to join them in imagining the details of Omelas, asking a series of questions and proposing a variety of possibilities. What kind of technology does Omelas have? The narrator answers that question by suggesting there probably would not be flying cars or helicopters because these things are not necessary for happiness, and the people of Omelas are happy.
Instead, the narrator suggests Omelas probably has other great technologies, like floating light sources and a cure for the common cold. Then the narrator seems to backtrack, saying there could be all these things, or none of them, and it doesn’t really matter. Next, the narrator speculates that people from other towns in the region have been arriving by train in Omelas over the past few days to join the Festival.
The narrator also supposes that the train station is the grandest building in town and that there is an amazing Farmers’ Market. After this last bit of speculation, the narrator worries that the reader will think Omelas is too goody-goody and invites the reader to add an orgy into the mix.
The narrator evokes the idea of beautiful naked people wandering around offering sex to anyone who wants it, even during the Summer Festival parade. But the narrator warns this can’t be a religious kind of orgy with naked priests; that there can be religion, but no clergy because there is no guilt in Omelas.
The narrator then asks what else there should be in the city. They suggest drugs, but nothing too destructive, and imagines a drug called drooz, which brings ecstasy and pleasure but is not addictive. The narrator asks again what else there should be, and suggests there exists in Omelas the appreciation of bravery and a sense of triumph, but without war or soldiers.
- The people of Omelas, the narrator suggests, celebrate life, not death, and feel so contented that they rarely need to use drooz after all.
- The narrator then returns to describing the Festival of Summer procession, which has come to the Green Fields.
- People have begun to eat delicious food and the race is about to begin.
A woman passes out flowers and there is a young boy sitting on the edge of the crowd playing a wooden flute. People stop to listen, and when the boy finishes his song and lowers his flute, the race begins to officially kick off the Festival of Summer.
Here the narrator again pauses their description. This time the narrator asks the reader if they believe the story so far and whether they accept the happiness of the people of Omelas. Then they say they will describe one more thing, to make it all more believable. The narrator goes on to describe a basement in one of the buildings or homes in Omelas.
In this basement, there is a small, damp room with a dirt floor, about the size of a closet. Inside the room, which is behind a locked door, there are a couple of dirty mops, a bucket, and a young child. The child is ten years old, but looks younger, and was either born with an intellectual disability or else has become disabled because of neglect.
The child is scared and completely miserable. It is never allowed to leave the room. Occasionally, someone opens the door and kicks the child to make it stand up. The person fills the food bowl halfway with corn meal and grease, fills the water jug, and leaves. The child can remember what the outside world looks like and begs and pleads to be let out.
The child is naked and covered in sores, and it wails at night in its misery. The people of Omelas all know about the child in the basement. They all understand that everything good about Omelas, from their abundance of food to the good weather, depends upon the suffering of the child.
- They all understand this because when children are between the ages of eight and twelve, they are brought to see the child, and this tradeoff is explained to them.
- During this experience, the children of Omelas are disgusted.
- They want to help, but they are told they can’t.
- If anyone helps the child by clothing, feeding, or otherwise caring for it, then the perfect happiness of Omelas and its abundance would die.
Therefore, no one may even speak kindly to the child. Though at first the children who are shown the suffering child are deeply upset, after a time they begin to justify the suffering, telling themselves that freedom probably wouldn’t help the child. They tell themselves that the child has known suffering for so long that it wouldn’t know how to feel joy anymore and would miss the squalor of the locked room.
So the children who are shown the suffering child come to accept this as a fact of life in Omelas. In fact, once they get over their anger and sadness, they begin to attribute their happiness to the knowledge of the suffering child. Without this knowledge, they would not appreciate life as much as they do.
Their music, their architecture, and even their freedom would not be as good as it is if the suffering child did not exist. At this point, the narrator pauses for a final time to ask the reader whether what they have just learned does not make Omelas more believable.
The narrator then shares one other bit of information. Every now and again, a person who is shown the suffering child breaks the usual pattern. They do not become angry and then later calm down and come to accept it. Instead, these people leave Omelas altogether. They walk down the street alone, and out the gates.
They walk across the fields and into the mountains, and they never come back. The narrator admits they do not know where these people go, but the ones who walk away from Omelas seem to know exactly where they are going.
What is the key to happiness in Omelas
By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University) ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ is a 1973 short story by the American writer Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018). A powerful tale which its author described as a ‘psychomyth’, this story explores some weighty and important themes over the course of its eight pages.
- Below, we explore some of the most prominent themes of ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’.
- In case it’s helpful, here’s a quick recap of the plot: In the fictional city of Omelas, the inhabitants seem to live happy and fulfilling lives.
- The story opens with the Festival of Summer, an annual festival celebrating the arrival of the season.
The citizens of Omelas celebrate with a procession involving the whole city. The place is a utopia. But the happiness of the people of Omelas is founded on a terrible thing: in a basement under one of the buildings of the city, a young child is kept imprisoned.
- This is the dark secret that ensures the happiness of the rest of the city: this one child must be kept in a condition of unspeakable misery.
- Most inhabitants of Omelas accept this fact as the ‘price’ for their own happiness, but some will not be a part of it and leave.
- These people are ‘the ones who walk away from Omelas’.
Morality. However else we might approach Le Guin’s story, it seems obvious that it is a moral tale. The story invites us as readers to ponder whether it is ever right to cause suffering – or even turn a blind eye to it – if it ensures our own happiness, or the happiness of society as a whole.
In ancient times, individuals were often sacrificed to the gods because societies believed that, by offering up the life of one person, they were guaranteeing the lives of the rest of society, or they believed that the gods would support their cause and ensure them victory in a war, among other examples.
In classical myth, for example, Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods because he thought that by doing so the gods would grant him fair winds so he could sail off to the Trojan War. Even if he was correct and the gods did heed his request, was he morally right to do what he did? Or we might consider the moral questions raised by Le Guin’s story alongside a famous thought experiment known as the trolley problem, whose ethical angles were first outlined by Philippa Foot in 1967, just six years before ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ was published. In most versions of this moral problem, a train is on course to kill five people, but the bystander has the power to switch the train onto a different line where it will kill just one person. Would you pull the switch? After all, in doing so, you would have directly saved five people from certain death.
- But you would also have directly killed someone.
- If the safety of five people depends on sacrificing an innocent person – even just one innocent person – then can it be true that happiness for ‘the greatest number’ of people (to quote from a branch of philosophy known as Utilitarianism ) is all-important? Complicity.
But of course, the people of Omelas are not directly making the child suffer. Instead, though, they are allowing the suffering to continue, and are probably powerless to stop it as individuals. It would perhaps take a mass uprising or other political action for the citizens to bring the child’s suffering to an end.
This is why the word ‘Ones’ in Le Guin’s title, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, is important: most people in the city turn a blind eye to the child’s misery and countenance it, because they believe (or know?) that the continuation of such misery is necessary to ensure the happiness of everyone else.
Those who object or refuse to be complicit in such a community are few and far between, just the odd ‘one or two’, or ‘Ones’. The Scapegoat. We can link Le Guin’s story to the concept of the scapegoat, which is mentioned in the Old Testament (although the word we use appears to be the result of a mistranslation, or a misunderstanding of the original Hebrew passage, at any rate).
The original scapegoat was a goat that ‘escaped’. In Jewish culture, two goats were selected, and one was sacrificed while the other was set free into the wilderness, with all of the sins of the society being packed onto it (metaphorically) first. This was a way of exorcising the sins of the society: people could live happily believing themselves ‘purged’ of their sins because the scapegoat had assumed responsibility for them.
Of course, in the New Testament, Jesus Christ is seen as a divine version of the same principle. The child in ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ is another variation on the scapegoat concept (with the key difference that this scapegoat doesn’t ‘escape’ but is imprisoned instead so it can’t escape).
Capitalism. Le Guin’s story is sometimes interpreted as an allegory for modern capitalism, which relies upon an ‘underclass’ remaining in poverty so that the affluent members of society can be rich and prosperous. If everyone was rich and successful, the whole economic model would fail. For example, cheap labour (especially overseas) enables large global companies to sell their products to millions of Westerners at affordable prices.
What of the people who endure slave labour (many of them, lest we forget, children the same age as the child in Le Guin’s story) so that smartphones and other products can be sold so cheaply? To some extent, then, America’s prosperity depends on the poverty and misery of millions of other people, including many people (immigrants and low-paid workers on the breadline) living in the US itself.
Is Le Guin’s story an allegory for this kind of society, the one which Americans, and other Westerners, live in today? Well, yes and no. Although it’s tempting to see the story as a straight allegory, it is worth bearing in mind that Le Guin’s narrator makes a point of telling us that consumerist culture is unknown to the people of Omelas: they have no stock exchange and no advertisements around the city.
This seems like an odd detail to mention if Le Guin intended the story to be read as an ‘allegory for capitalism’. It was Le Guin’s contemporary Gene Wolfe, another writer acclaimed as a great stylist who, like Le Guin, wrote both science fiction and fantasy, who observed, ‘Almost any interesting work of art comes close to saying the opposite of what it really says.’ And whilst Le Guin stated that the passage from William James which inspired ‘Omelas’ described ‘the dilemma of the American conscience’, the remarkable thing about her story is that we could almost read it as an allegory not for capitalism but Communism: the lack of advertisements and other trappings of a consumerist society, the underclass (represented by the child) who is kept in perpetual misery, the ‘utopia’ in which everyone else is equally ‘happy’ but at a great cost.
- This is not to suggest, crudely, that ‘Omelas’ is an allegory for twentieth-century Communist societies, a kind of latter-day Animal Farm ; instead, it is to argue that Le Guin’s story contains elements of different societies in order to reflect part of them all, but none of them completely.
- In conclusion, we should accept the story’s allegorical qualities but we cannot draw a clear line whereby the situation in Omelas neatly and directly maps onto some real-life scenario.
This is why the story’s vagueness (which goes right down to the narrator’s often uncertain style and narrative voice) is its strength: it is a universal story about all of the themes listed above, including complicity in another’s suffering, the morality surrounding ideas of sacrifice or scapegoating, and the way a society treats children.