The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is the story of Omelas, a city where everyone seems to be happy and to live in peace and harmony. Toward the end of the story, however, the narrator reveals that the happiness of Omelas is dependent on the existence of a child who is locked in a small, windowless room and who is abused and mistreated. Although most of the citizens accept the situation, a small number of people leave Omelas forever after seeing the deplorable conditions in which the child lives.
The story is divided into two fairly distinct sections. In the first section, the narrator attempts to describe Omelas even though he/she notes more than once that the description is inadequate and does not capture the joy and happiness of Omelas. In the second section, the narrator reveals the existence of the child and matter-of-factly describes the awful conditions in which it is forced to live.
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is told from the point of view of a first-person narrator. The narrator is not an active participant in the story and does not have any special insight into the characters’ perceptions. Since the narrator invites the reader to take part in the description of Omelas, he/she is not an objective or reliable observer. For example, toward the beginning of the story, the narrator states: “I wish I could describe [Omelas] better. 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.” Since readers are asked to develop their own perceptions of Omelas, they are implicated in the creation of Omelas as well as in the horrible situation on which the society rests.
Le Guin manipulates the narrative, and therefore the reader, by shifting tenses throughout the story. In the first paragraph, the narrator describes the festival in the past tense. As the narrator begins to describe Omelas in more detail, he/she moves to the conditional tense, a verb tense which is subject to or dependent on a condition. In this case, the reality of Omelas is dependent on the involvement of the reader. Finally, after the third paragraph, the narrative shifts to the present tense. Consequently, as Shoshanna Knapp writes in The Journal of Narrative Technique, the reader becomes “stuck in the story, to be set free only when a few of the people of Omelas stride out of the land and the story, headed for a country that the narrator cannot describe and that, consequently, may not ‘exist.'” The narrator’s use of the pronoun ”it” to describe the child also adds to the manipulation of the reader because it makes the child seem less than human. Therefore, it is easier for readers to justify the mistreatment and abuse of the child.
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is considered an allegory, or a tale in which characters representing things or abstract ideas are used to convey a message or teach a lesson. This story has been called both a political allegory and a religious allegory. The child, who is sacrificed for the good of the community, has been said to represent the underclass in capitalistic Western societies as well as the underdeveloped countries of the Third World. In capitalistic societies, particularly the United States, the wealth and privilege of the upper-class is often dependent on the exploitation or denial of the lower classes. Additionally, some believe the continued prosperity of industrialized Western nations is due in part to the abuse and manipulation of Third World countries. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas has also been characterized as a religious allegory, with some critics suggesting that the child is a Christ-like figure, or one who is sacrificed so that others may live.
The story is also an example of Utopian literature, a form of fiction which describes an imaginary, ideal world where laws, government, and social conditions are perfect. Utopian literature also frequently addresses the impossibility of Utopian societies and examines the negative social, political, and psychological consequences of Utopian worlds. In The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Le Guin shows that the idealized happiness of Omelas does not come without a price; in order for the society to exist, one child must be terribly abused. By presenting such a dilemma, Le Guin forces the reader to consider which is more important, morality or happiness.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Ursula K. Le Guin, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.