Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic short story opens as the celebration of the Festival of Summer is getting underway in the city of Omelas. There is an air of genuine excitement about the festival, with its flag-adorned boats, noisy running children, prancing horses, and “great joyous clanging of the bells.” The narrator, who never identifies him or herself, steps back from describing the scene to comment that, “Given a description such as this one tends to make certain assumptions.. . . Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time.” However, the narrator hastens to add, the people of Omelas “were not barbarians. I do not know the rules and laws of their society, but I suspect they were singularly few.” The people of Omelas are happy, and the narrator explains his or her belief that “we” (presumably enlightened, contemporary westerners) have a”bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid.”
As the narrator continues to describe the people and the city, he or she stops using the past tense verbs of a traditional narration and switches to the conditional: “I think that there would be no cars or helicopters in and above the streets.” The people’s happiness is not determined by the external accoutrements of life in Omelas, but rather, whatever is in Omelas “follows from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people.” This happiness is “based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive.” They “could perfectly well” have some of the luxuries belonging to the middle category, but, as the narrator tells the reader, other than the fact that they are happy, what they have or do not have “doesn’t matter. As you like it.” The narrator has an idea about what life is like there, but the reader is more than welcome to add details of his or her own. If the description given thus far of Omelas strikes the reader as “goodygoody,” for example, then the reader is welcome to add an orgy. If there are orgies, though, any resulting offspring will be treated well; in another distinction which makes Omelas seem utopic,”one thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt.”
Now the horse race is about to begin, and with it the Festival itself officially opens. In case the reader is still skeptical about the nature of Omelas, the narrator will describe “one more thing.” At this point the story makes a dramatic shift, turning to what is literally and figuratively beneath the surface of the happy city, the troubling situation at the core of its existence. In a dirty, dusty, dank, locked room sits a “feeble-minded” child in fear of its surroundings, never directly approached by the townspeople except when they “kick the child to make it stand up … [or] peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes.” As with the details of the city itself, the narrator leaves some of the details of the child’s existence up to the reader, too: the room is “in a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes…. [The child] could be a boy or a girl.” But from here, although the reader is given alternatives and choices as to the conditions of the child’s existence, the horror of the description proceeds with clarity and certainty.
The adults of Omelas “all know it is there…. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there.” All the adults understand that everything that is good and wonderful about their city depends “wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” People, usually children, who come to see the child for the first time “are always shocked and sickened at the sight.” They may ponder the peril of this child “for weeks or years,” ultimately realizing that there is nothing they can do. If the child “were cleaned and fed 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: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.” Furthermore, says the narrator, the people realize that even if the child were to be released and treated kindly now, it has been degraded for so long already that rescue would come too late; it is unlikely that it would “get much good of its freedom.” The tears of the young people “at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion.”
The narrator winds up the story by asking the reader if somehow the presence of this suffering, which all the happiness of Omelas is based on, makes the happiness more credible. And then, he or she adds,”There is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible.” Occasionally one of the adolescents who goes to see the child for the first time, or even one of the older adults who has been pondering the child’s situation silently for years, turns away from the town and simply leaves, each one alone, walking “ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Ursula K. Le Guin, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.