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 uses some intriguing symbolism to put across its ‘message’.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the key symbols of Le Guin’s story. 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’.
Is it significant that it is a child, specifically, who is the sacrificial lamb in Le Guin’s story? Children symbolise innocence, and for this reason, they were often the ones who were sacrificed in primitive societies because they were considered ‘pure’ offerings to give to the gods. The Carthaginians, who went to war with the Romans, famously sacrificed their own children because they thought it would make their civilisation more victorious and prosperous.
Children also represent the next generation, so to sacrifice them is, in one sense, to go backwards as a civilisation, even if it is only one child who is kept in a state of misery and imprisonment in Le Guin’s story. If the sacrificial person had been someone older, who had lived much of their life already, we may still view the attitude of the people of Omelas as distasteful, but it would not be so morally abhorrent to us.
The child’s age is also arguably significant. It is ‘nearly ten’, which aligns the child with another child the narrator had mentioned a few paragraphs earlier: that ‘child of nine or ten’ (in other words, nearly ten?) who sits alone and plays a wooden flute. This child is part of the free and happy society of Omelas, in stark contrast to the ‘imbecile’ child of the same age kept in abject misery underground.
Le Guin tacitly invites us to compare and contrast the lives of these two children. By pure chance, one was born into mainstream society and is allowed to live a happy, normal life. The other, by no fault of its own, has been kept in poverty and want. We might interpret such a contrast as a microcosm of society at large, in which some people are born into privilege and others are born into deprivation and hardship. It is purely a lottery as to which child one ends up being.
Later in the story, Le Guin tells us that the other children of Omelas are usually told about the child in the basement/cellar between the ages of eight and twelve (so ten again, as an average?).
The fact that the child in ‘Omelas’ is imprisoned in a basement can be read as significant. However, in this detail, as with others (such as the gender of the child imprisoned within it), the narrator is uncertain. The place where the child is kept locked up might be a basement under one of the public buildings in the city, or it might be a cellar under a private house.
In either case, the fact that this place of incarceration is underground is charged with symbolic significance. It means the child is out of sight. It also, we might say, symbolises the notion that the child is a one-person underclass in an otherwise equal society (which has no king or queen).
The French word for an underground prison is oubliette, meaning ‘forgotten’. Prisoners thrown into this subterranean cell are, symbolically or even literally, meant to be forgotten about. They are kept separate from the rest of society, literally inhabitant a different level or stratum from everyone else.
The horses of Omelas symbolise the relative freedom and carefree attitude of the citizens of Omelas. (We say ‘relative’ freedom because, as Le Guin tells us, the people of Omelas are not free, even if they are freer than the imprisoned child.)
The horses are mentioned at numerous points by the narrator. Children ride them in horse races for the Summer Festival, and the horses themselves are described as prancing and boasting to each other, as though they, too, are happy and proud to be part of the celebrations.
Similarly, the Summer Festival which provides the backdrop to ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ is laden with symbolism. In the northern hemisphere at least, summer is a time of brightness, warm weather, sunshine, crops and flowers and trees flourishing and growing, and many joy-filled summer festivals such as maypole dancing. Many of these festivals are linked to ideas of fertility.
Light is often symbolically linked to joy and happiness, and darkness with misery and the unknown (or the conveniently forgotten). And so we should consider, finally …
The darkness mentioned at the end of ‘Omelas’ is the story’s final important symbol. Those who refuse to be complicit in the child’s suffering and who actually leave Omelas walk ‘ahead into the darkness’, the narrator tells us. On one level, this darkness is literal: the narrator describes them leaving Omelas as night falls, and continuing their journey thereafter.
But the darkness is also, we might say, metaphorical. If darkness represents the unknown, then the darkness into which these ‘ones who walk away from Omelas’ purposefully walk is a symbol for the unknown alternatives to the society of Omelas which lie beyond. Le Guin is suggesting that, when we are living within a particular culture or political system, it is often difficult to imagine another way of doing things.
This is probably one reason why so many of the people who remain in Omelas can turn a blind eye to the child’s suffering. They can envision no other way to have a happy society. But the end of the story implies there is, and that all it takes is people with the drive and the will to realise this. This is why those who walk away from Omelas ‘seem to know where they are going’, despite the darkness into which they are heading.