“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula Le Guin is about a mystical town called Omelas, functioning as an almost Utopia. Like a fairytale kingdom, there are seasonal festivals, parades with streamer-strung horses and boys and girls that march in happy processions. Omelas is free of a clergy, free of an army, and most of all, free of hate. Omelas has craftsmen, yet it also has grand schools and grand libraries, a thriving appreciation for the arts, and a sense of camaraderie amongst its citizens. Like the inhabitants of Omelas, the weather is fair and hospitable. Sunny days with the sky peeking through wisps of clouds shaped like cotton candy. Omelas is paradise except for one dire aspect: in a small, dark, and decrepit closet, there lives a small child. He has been malnourished and mistreated since birth. All he knows is loneliness and misery, for there is no one who can truly relate to the weak child–the dumb one. His best memories are mild discomfort, and his worst a constant suffering.
No one in Omelas has suffered more than this child.
For some inexplicable reason, his existence is necessary, tied intrinsically with his misery. The good of Omelas cannot exist without his suffering, and this is the seeming paradox of Omelas. When the citizens of Omelas are young, they are taken to see the boy. Many are repulsed. They experience emotional conflict, confused as to how they can live in such luxury and happiness whilst the boy lives in filth and his own excrement. A vast majority eventually grow to accept this boy’s existence, how the stability of their society rests on the knowledge of this one child in the closet who must live unhappy. However, there are some that cannot bear it. They are the ones who walk away from Omelas.
The structure of this story flickers between two types: vivid depictions of scenes in the town with dense yet easy to read imagery; and an almost moralistic description of the nature of happiness and sorrow in writing, told from the point of view of the speaker. The two intertwine occasionally when Le Guin connects the Utopian setting to the state of how happiness is stigmatized in literature. At times she addresses the audience directly, such as in “Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?”
Similarly, the story also varies in its scope, first focusing on the big picture description of the town then closing in on individual scenes as such: the tableau of the boy with the flute, which can be compared to the boy in the closet. Le Guin pans from place to place then goes from macro to micro–the macro of the town and its festivities, the microcosm of the boy in his den of filth.
Regarding characterization, Le Guin characterizes the people of Omelas as cheerful folk. They love music and good food. They are prone to spirituality (though of no denomination and clerical hierarchy) and revel in the joy of life. Each man and woman treats the next like his or her own neighbor. Neighbor and family member become blurred in Omelas, for everyone is happy and shares in his happiness with the others.
At least, this is how it first seems. Le Guin then transitions to the narrative of the child. Here, she never directly criticizes Omelas’s people, but she still intends for them to be judged by the audience for their lack of action. Where the people of the festival (and even the orgy) are happy and described in association with bright colors, every word relating to the boy is negative in connotation. Through no fault of his own, the boy must live with words such as “fear, malnutrition, and neglect,” with “frightened” and “disgusted,” with “grease,” “naked,” and “festered sores.” Even the audience cannot help but be disgusted by the boy in his forced filth.
The setting of Omelas is absolutely central to the plot. Omelas the town drives Omelas the story. Like one reads the tale of one main character, the entire city is the protagonist. As we walk along its streets the plot unravels. The descriptions of the town is open, unlike the boy’s closet, which is closed, both physically and closed off to the rest of the society. Having the boy in such a small space yet still in a building representative of humanity shows how the boy lives in the society yet exists outside of it (much like the ones who have walked away).
The heart of my presentation rests in the discussion questions and what others have to say and how this piece resonates in their own writing. Without further ado:
- The author defends happiness to be as poignant as sorrow. Do you agree with this? How does this apply to your own writing?
- Why is tragedy so much more prevalent than happiness and laughter in literature? Why are people drawn to stories of conflict when reading is seen as an escape?
- In the end, are the ones who have walked away from Omelas justified? A question, do you agree with their actions? A second question, are they really doing right despite their actions having no effect on the boy? Rather, is the boy’s suffering wasted on those who have walked away and who do not partake of the society’s happiness?