Writers can get ideas from the strangest of places. Omelas, the distinctive-sounding but entirely fictional city in Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1973 short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, came from her reading a road sign for Salem, Oregon, (‘Salem, O.’) in her car’s rear-view mirror. But the idea behind the story came from both Fyodor Dostoevsky and from the nineteenth-century psychologist, William James.
‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ is one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s best-known stories, and it has the force of a modern myth: indeed, Le Guin herself, in her note to the story, used the term ‘psychomyth’ to describe it. How should we respond to this troubling and powerful story? Before we provide an analysis of ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, it might be worth recapping the story’s plot. The story, by the way, is available in Le Guin’s bumper collection, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters and The Compass Rose (S.F. MASTERWORKS), which contains some of the finest SF short stories of the late twentieth century.
‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’: summary
It’s easy enough to summarise the plot of ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, since the story is more about a general situation than a ‘plot’ as such.
In the fictional city of Omelas, the inhabitants seem to live happy and fulfilling lives. The story opens with the Festival of Summer, an annual festival celebrating the arrival of the season. The citizens of Omelas celebrate with a procession involving the whole city. Boys and girls ride horses. There is music, and singing, and the clanging of bells.
The narrator tells us that the people of Omelas are not simple folk, but they are happy. They have no King, and do not keep slaves. They are not barbarians. Although the narrator confesses to lacking detailed knowledge of the laws and rules of Omelas, they suspect there are relatively few. Consumerist culture is unknown to the people of the city: they have no stock exchange and no advertisements around the city. They have no need of a secret police. It sounds like a utopia. The narrator confides that Omelas sounds like a city out of some fairy tale.
After describing the city of Omelas and its inhabitants in more detail, and then returning to the procession for the Festival of Summer, the narrator mentions one final detail: in a basement under one of the ‘beautiful public buildings’ of the city, or perhaps in a cellar somewhere in a private house, there is a child of nearly ten years old, though they (the child is of indeterminate gender) look around six years old, so malnourished and stunted are they.
This child is kept imprisoned in this one windowless room, living literally in their own filth. Sometimes the child is brought just enough food to keep it alive, but the child is never allowed out of its prison cell. The child has not always lived in this room, but once knew their mother’s voice. Every now and then the child promises, to nobody, that they will be good if only someone will let them out of the room. But nobody ever does.
And this, the narrator tells us, is the dirty, dark, unpleasant secret that ensures the happiness of the rest of the city of Omelas: the rest of the city can only function if this one child is kept in ‘abominable misery’ all the time.
When children become old enough to understand, they are told about the child in the room. Often they are brought to see the miserable child on whom their own happiness, and that of their fellow citizens, is dependent. They are always shocked and sickened by the sight of the maltreated child, and feel angry, outraged, but ultimately powerless to help the child. They know that if the child was freed from their captivity, it would be the morally right thing to do, but on the other hand, the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would vanish.
But there are some, the narrator tells us at the end of the story, who are so appalled by a society that would be set up in such a way, that they just walk out of the city and leave, heading for somewhere else. The narrator doesn’t know where they are headed, but they seem to know where they are going, ‘the ones who walk away from Omelas’.
‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’: analysis
‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ takes its cue, first and foremost, from a passage from the American psychologist William James (1842-1910), the brother of the celebrated novelist Henry James. In his essay ‘The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life’, James wrote:
Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a sceptical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?
Here, James is reflecting on the idealised perfect societies of writers of fiction – mostly socialists, such as Edward Bellamy (whose Looking Backward, 2000-1887 was a huge bestseller upon its publication in the US in 1888) and William Morris (who wrote a socialist utopia novel, News from Nowhere, in 1890). The philosophy of Utilitarianism, often expressed as ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’, is relevant here, too.
But what if the greatest happiness for the majority depended, not merely on a minority being unhappy, but on a minority actively being kept in a perpetual state of misery? What if that were the condition on which everyone else’s happiness and success depended? Would that be morally acceptable, or would it not, rather, strike us as morally repugnant?
‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ invites us to reflect on this moral question, although Le Guin, through her tentative narrator (who is something of a semi-informed bystander, rather than someone living ‘in’ the society of Omelas, and thus being complicit), doesn’t press the moral issue on us too hard, instead letting us respond to the troubling scenario ourselves, forming our own questions in response. (Le Guin claimed in her note that she had also encountered a version of this moral problem in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, although she had forgotten she’s read it there. But writers often ‘remember’ things they think they’ve forgotten, these ideas lying buried deep in the mind until the author finds a use for them.)
Of course, there is no rhyme or reason why the city’s happiness and prosperity should be dependent on the misery of one child. The narrator never explains this. Indeed, the narrator is what we might call an ‘uncertain narrator’ (as distinct from an unreliable narrator), because they readily confess to the limits of their knowledge about Omelas and its practices. For instance, the narrator admits that they don’t know where those people are going, the ‘ones who walk away from Omelas’.
But Ursula K. Le Guin was one of the foremost literary stylists of her generation, and certainly one of the finest stylists working in science fiction and speculative fiction. And one of the subtle details of ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ is that the narrator seems to accept without question the very premise on which the city has been made prosperous: namely, that the child must be kept miserable and in squalid conditions, in order to guarantee the opposite for everyone else, unless we accept the idea that happiness exists as some kind of cosmic balance (i.e. there’s a finite amount of joy in the world, and by making one person wretched and miserable they ‘use up’ all of the misery and leave nothing but happiness for everyone else).
But perhaps this is precisely the point: we only have the (uncertain) narrator’s word for it that the beauty and joy of Omelas would vanish if the child’s suffering was ended. The uncertainty surrounding this issue means that the whole setup may be founded on nothing more than baseless superstition, or ideology: that is, the people of Omelas believe this is how happiness works and so the child must continue to be miserable, and the very idea of pulling the rug out and testing whether this theory is correct is unthinkable.
The closest analogue to this setup is the concept of the scapegoat, which is found in the Old Testament: literally, the original scapegoat was a goat that ‘escaped’. In Jewish culture, two goats were selected, and one was sacrificed while the other was set free into the wilderness, with all of the sins of the society being packed onto it (metaphorically) first. This was a way of exorcising the sins of the society: people could believe themselves ‘purged’ through the ritual of the scapegoat, because their sins would be, if not forgiven, then driven out of town, on the back of that goat.
Of course, in one respect, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ takes this idea and turns it on its head: yes, the child (who, like the goat, is just a ‘kid’) is the one on whom the whole city dumps all of its misery so that everyone else can be happy, but rather than being set free into the wilderness, the child is imprisoned – quite the opposite of ‘escaping’. It’s a neat irony.
But of course, one doesn’t have to believe in the Jewish or Christian idea of the scapegoat, nor in some fuzzy notion of cosmic happiness, to find other ways in which ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ speaks to us as a modern myth. In one sense, America’s prosperity, like Britain’s during the days of the British Empire before it, depends on the poverty and misery of millions of other people, including many people (immigrants and low-paid workers on the breadline) living in the US itself.
It is arguably the same in any affluent society: from an economic perspective, for the majority to flourish there must, somewhere, be a minority who are struggling, living in untold misery and squalor. Perhaps it might not even be a minority, but a majority. We might also go back to ancient civilisations such as the Carthaginians, who sacrificed their own children to the gods in order to ensure (or so they thought) that their great civilisation would bloom, and triumph in any war. Of course, we all know where that got the Carthaginians, once they lost the Punic Wars against the Roman Empire.
One of the most powerful moments of ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ comes not at the end – although the ending is remarkably poignant, with its enigmatic acknowledgment that there are some who refuse to give up on the idea that a better world is possible – but just before the end, when Le Guin’s narrator outlines the gradual acceptance of the citizens of Omelas to the suffering of the child. Having been shocked and sickened by the sight of the child’s misery, and having had their moral indignation piqued, they then realise that, as they’re powerless to do anything about it, they have to justify such evil to themselves, and their complicity in it. Well, they say, the child wouldn’t really be able to enjoy life now, as it’s so mentally wretched it wouldn’t know how to get much out of a life of freedom.
By such mental gymnastics – and moral contortions – are many atrocities justified. And the twentieth century had brought to light more than enough atrocities which ordinary citizens had somehow convinced themselves were ‘necessary’ or ‘for the greater good’.
As we remarked at the beginning of this analysis, Le Guin herself described ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ as a ‘psychomyth’, and a good myth always attracts new meanings and resonances to it of which its original author would have been unaware. Reading the story in the wake of the events of 2020, we can detect new ways in which Le Guin’s modern moral fable resonates with us: in public health measures, there are always unpleasant trade-offs, difficult compromises, and, whatever one does, some who are made miserable in order for others to prosper. Perhaps the very least a decent society owes itself is to be honest about this unpalatable truth.
You can buy the story, along with many other classic stories by Le Guin, in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters and The Compass Rose (S.F. MASTERWORKS).
Image: by Oregon State University, via Wikimedia Commons.