The child, whose existence is revealed toward the end of the story, is abused and mistreated so the other citizens of Omelas can live in prosperity and happiness. Locked in a small room or closet with no windows, the child is dirty, naked, and malnourished. It receives only half a bowl of corn meal and grease a day and often sits in its own excrement. The narrator states that the child “could be 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.” All of the citizens of Omelas know of the child’s existence, but they also “know that it has to be there. . . . [They] all understand that their happiness.. .[depends] wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” The child, therefore, is the scapegoat of the story; it is sacrificed for the good of the others in the community.
The Citizens of Omelas
The citizens of Omelas are described as happy, nonviolent, and intelligent. Everyone is considered equal in Omelas; there are no slaves or rulers. In Omelas, children run about naked, playing; “merry women carry their babies”; and “tall young men wear… flowers in their shining hair.” The narrator also stresses that although the citizens are happy, they are not simple or naive; “they were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched.” All of the citizens know about the child, who is mistreated and locked in a small room, but most accept that their happiness depends on the child’s “abominable misery.” The ones who are not able to bear the reality of the child’s situation leave Omelas forever.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Ursula K. Le Guin, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.