The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is taken from Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, a collection of mostly science fiction and fantasy stories.
Summary and Analysis
The narrative begins by describing the first day of summer in the city of Omelas. There is a festive atmosphere, joy and happiness all around. This we are immediately told is not specific to that particular day, but is a permanent state of being in Omelas. The people are “intelligent, sophisticated and cultured” and also blissfully happy all the time. Here the narrator launches into a passionate critique of the society we live in where happiness is considered “stupid”. Although the people of Omelas are as “complex” as us, and not in any way “simple”, they valued happiness whereas “we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting…we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy.” Before we can attribute this happy state of being to some benevolent king or oligarchs, the narrator quickly dispels all such notions. We are told that Omelas does not have a figure of authority. It does not have kings, soldiers, priests, slaves, and “got on without stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police and the bomb.” Beyond this statement, the political, social and economic set up of Omelas is not referred to at all and the narrator simply says she is not sure about it. The celebration of the first summer day is the only chronological event mentioned in the entire narrative. Everything else is by way of conjecture and speculation. We realize early in the narrative, that the narrator does not intend to create a real city with clearly defined geographical boundaries. Omelas is an amorphous, imaginary space and this becomes abundantly clear when the narrator invites the reader to create Omelas.
Anticipating the disbelief of the reader in the existence of such a perfect place, she writes, “I wish I could convince you. Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all.”
The narrator then lists some things the reader might want to include in Omelas; for instance they could include fuel-less, light sourced central heating, subway trains, washing machines, but certainly not cars or helicopters. And if the reader is inclined towards including orgies and drooz (pleasure inducing, non-habit forming drugs) they are welcome to do so but with conditions. “Let us not 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…. But really it would be better not to have any temples in Omelas at least not manned temples. Religion yes, clergy no… . For those who like the faint insistent sweetness of drooz… which first brings a great lightness and brilliance to the mind and limbs…, as well as exciting the pleasure of sex beyond all belief; and it is not habit forming.” You will notice that the reader is only being given some freedom to create Omelas, but the final contours of what the reader includes is within the parameters set by the narrator. The narrative control thus rests with the narrator.
At the summer festival celebration grounds, there is a child nine or ten sitting at the edge of the crowd and playing on a flute. He is so immersed in creating the music that he is oblivious to the crowd around him. “His dark eyes wholly rapt in the sweet, thin magic of the tune”. This child in blissful harmony with his music is in complete contrast to the other child of similar age that we get to meet soon after.
Just when the reader is becoming comfortable and setting into Omelas, after having co- created it and its happy people with the narrator, the narrator abruptly changes the setting. The reader is taken to a small closet in the basement of a grand building where a child is kept in filth, hungry and miserable. That there is a child suffering excruciating pain and misery is not a secret; everyone in Omelas when they are of an age, old enough to know, are made aware of this child. “The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room is a child sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect… . It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.” This suffering child is the edifice on which the happiness of Omelas rests. Although most of them express horror, disgust and shock at the condition of the child, they accept it as necessary to secure happiness of the entire community.
But there are some citizens whose conscience does not permit this atrocity and they walk away from Omelas, from a happiness guaranteed for a lifetime. The narrator tells us that the place where these citizens go is “less imaginable” than Omelas, and perhaps it does not even exist. But what is important is that “they know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”