By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ is a 1973 short story by the American writer Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018). A powerful tale which its author described as a ‘psychomyth’, this story explores some weighty and important themes over the course of its eight pages.
Below, we explore some of the most prominent themes of ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’. In case it’s helpful, here’s a quick recap of the plot:
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. The place is a utopia.
But the happiness of the people of Omelas is founded on a terrible thing: in a basement under one of the buildings of the city, a young child is kept imprisoned. This is the dark secret that ensures the happiness of the rest of the city: this one child must be kept in a condition of unspeakable misery. Most inhabitants of Omelas accept this fact as the ‘price’ for their own happiness, but some will not be a part of it and leave. These people are ‘the ones who walk away from Omelas’.
However else we might approach Le Guin’s story, it seems obvious that it is a moral tale. The story invites us as readers to ponder whether it is ever right to cause suffering – or even turn a blind eye to it – if it ensures our own happiness, or the happiness of society as a whole. In ancient times, individuals were often sacrificed to the gods because societies believed that, by offering up the life of one person, they were guaranteeing the lives of the rest of society, or they believed that the gods would support their cause and ensure them victory in a war, among other examples.
In classical myth, for example, Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods because he thought that by doing so the gods would grant him fair winds so he could sail off to the Trojan War. Even if he was correct and the gods did heed his request, was he morally right to do what he did?
Or we might consider the moral questions raised by Le Guin’s story alongside a famous thought experiment known as the trolley problem, whose ethical angles were first outlined by Philippa Foot in 1967, just six years before ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ was published. In most versions of this moral problem, a train is on course to kill five people, but the bystander has the power to switch the train onto a different line where it will kill just one person.
Would you pull the switch? After all, in doing so, you would have directly saved five people from certain death. But you would also have directly killed someone. If the safety of five people depends on sacrificing an innocent person – even just one innocent person – then can it be true that happiness for ‘the greatest number’ of people (to quote from a branch of philosophy known as Utilitarianism) is all-important?
But of course, the people of Omelas are not directly making the child suffer. Instead, though, they are allowing the suffering to continue, and are probably powerless to stop it as individuals. It would perhaps take a mass uprising or other political action for the citizens to bring the child’s suffering to an end.
This is why the word ‘Ones’ in Le Guin’s title, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, is important: most people in the city turn a blind eye to the child’s misery and countenance it, because they believe (or know?) that the continuation of such misery is necessary to ensure the happiness of everyone else. Those who object or refuse to be complicit in such a community are few and far between, just the odd ‘one or two’, or ‘Ones’.
We can link Le Guin’s story to the concept of the scapegoat, which is mentioned in the Old Testament (although the word we use appears to be the result of a mistranslation, or a misunderstanding of the original Hebrew passage, at any rate).
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 live happily believing themselves ‘purged’ of their sins because the scapegoat had assumed responsibility for them. Of course, in the New Testament, Jesus Christ is seen as a divine version of the same principle.
The child in ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ is another variation on the scapegoat concept (with the key difference that this scapegoat doesn’t ‘escape’ but is imprisoned instead so it can’t escape).
Le Guin’s story is sometimes interpreted as an allegory for modern capitalism, which relies upon an ‘underclass’ remaining in poverty so that the affluent members of society can be rich and prosperous. If everyone was rich and successful, the whole economic model would fail.
For example, cheap labour (especially overseas) enables large global companies to sell their products to millions of Westerners at affordable prices. What of the people who endure slave labour (many of them, lest we forget, children the same age as the child in Le Guin’s story) so that smartphones and other products can be sold so cheaply?
To some extent, then, America’s prosperity 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. Is Le Guin’s story an allegory for this kind of society, the one which Americans, and other Westerners, live in today?
Well, yes and no. Although it’s tempting to see the story as a straight allegory, it is worth bearing in mind that Le Guin’s narrator makes a point of telling us that consumerist culture is unknown to the people of Omelas: they have no stock exchange and no advertisements around the city. This seems like an odd detail to mention if Le Guin intended the story to be read as an ‘allegory for capitalism’.
It was Le Guin’s contemporary Gene Wolfe, another writer acclaimed as a great stylist who, like Le Guin, wrote both science fiction and fantasy, who observed, ‘Almost any interesting work of art comes close to saying the opposite of what it really says.’
And whilst Le Guin stated that the passage from William James which inspired ‘Omelas’ described ‘the dilemma of the American conscience’, the remarkable thing about her story is that we could almost read it as an allegory not for capitalism but Communism: the lack of advertisements and other trappings of a consumerist society, the underclass (represented by the child) who is kept in perpetual misery, the ‘utopia’ in which everyone else is equally ‘happy’ but at a great cost.
This is not to suggest, crudely, that ‘Omelas’ is an allegory for twentieth-century Communist societies, a kind of latter-day Animal Farm; instead, it is to argue that Le Guin’s story contains elements of different societies in order to reflect part of them all, but none of them completely.
In conclusion, we should accept the story’s allegorical qualities but we cannot draw a clear line whereby the situation in Omelas neatly and directly maps onto some real-life scenario.
This is why the story’s vagueness (which goes right down to the narrator’s often uncertain style and narrative voice) is its strength: it is a universal story about all of the themes listed above, including complicity in another’s suffering, the morality surrounding ideas of sacrifice or scapegoating, and the way a society treats children.