Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic short story is of a Utopian society whose survival depends on the existence of a child who is locked in a small room and mistreated. Although all of the citizens of Omelas are aware of the child’s situation, most of them accept that their happiness is dependent on the child’s “abominable misery.” Sometimes, however, a few people, after visiting the child and seeing the deplorable conditions under which it lives, leave Omelas forever.
Morals and Morality
One of the major themes in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is morality. Le Guin once wrote in a preface to the story that it is a critique of American moral life. She also explained the story’s subtitle, “Variations on a Theme by William James,” noting that she was inspired to write the story by something James, an American psychologist and philosopher, stated in his “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”: “[If people could be] kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the faroff edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment,.. .how hideous a thing would be [the enjoyment of this happiness] when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain.” Although James believed people would not accept such a bargain, Le Guin presents in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” a society that does just that so that she can explore the reasons why people avoid or renounce moral responsibility. In fact, the few people who do choose to leave Omelas after seeing the child are hardly noticed, and their act of protest is not understood by the people or the narrator.
As a political allegory, a story in which characters represent things or ideas to convey a political message, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” also addresses the morality underlying political systems. The child has been said to represent the underclass in capitalistic Western societies, particularly the United States, as well as the underdeveloped countries of the Third World. In both cases, poor, underprivileged people are often exploited and overlooked by the wealthy and prosperous. Therefore, Le Guin explores the moral accountability of a society where the happiness of the majority rests on the misery of a powerless minority.
Finally, Le Guin examines the moral responsibility of writers and readers by composing a story in which the narrator tries to entice the reader into taking part in the creation of Omelas. Because the reader is told to imagine Omelas “as your fancy bids,” the reader is lulled into accepting Omelas and the horrible premise on which it is founded. Therefore, the reader, like the citizens of Omelas, can either accept the society or reject it out of moral indignation.
Victims and Victimization
Closely related to the theme of morality is the theme of victimization, which is the act of oppressing, harming, or killing an individual or group. In this story, the victim, the child, is a scapegoat—it is sacrificed, the narrator states, so the other citizens of Omelas can live in happiness and peace. However, the narrator gives no good, rational explanation of how this situation came about, who set the terms, or how it is enforced, stating only that “if the child were brought up into the sunlight out of the vile place, if it were cleaned and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement.” Critics have said this lack of a rational explanation adds to the moral conflict of the story because readers are unable to fully understand why a scapegoat is necessary for Omelas to continue to exist.
Guilt and Innocence
Le Guin also addresses guilt and innocence in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Although the narrator states that there is no guilt in Omelas, the reactions of the citizens to the child’s condition seem to suggest otherwise. For example, the narrator says that many people, after going to view the child, are “shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust…. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations. They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do.” The few people who choose to leave Omelas because they cannot accept the situation on which the society rests also, presumably, feel guilt. But the narrator is unable to fathom such a reaction and merely states, “I cannot describe it at all.”
Because “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is an example of Utopian literature, a type of fiction that depicts seemingly perfect societies, it also examines the meaning and consequences of happiness. Toward the beginning of the story, the narrator tries to explain why people are unable to accept happiness: “The trouble is 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. … But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold, we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy.” Since there is some truth to such statements, Le Guin causes the reader to wonder if people do, in fact, reject happiness as something “rather stupid” because they are too critical and pessimistic to believe true happiness can exist. This only further entices the reader to accept Omelas and, in turn, the possibility of Utopian societies despite the negative consequences.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Ursula K. Le Guin, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.