The Ones Who Walk from Omelas

What if you could go to a place where everyone was happy, but at a horrific, horrific cost?

So, I think it is an accidental secret that I really like Ursula Le Guin, and when my Ethics professor gave us the “optional reading” of Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” I, of course, thought to myself that he may have been kidding when he said optional.  Now, I’ve never heard of the story before this assignment, but I knew that if it was being assigned for an Ethics class, it was going to contain some kind of ethical dilemma, and I was not left wanting.  But before I get to that, I would like to talk about one of the things I liked the most about the set-up of the story: the way Le Guin puts the reader in their happy place without actually saying, “think of your happy place.”

As she describes Omelas, she gives pretty, but vague parameters.  You know there is a festival happening, but as far as the details of the city go, it’s up to you.  It could be modern, it could be some kind of fantasy, it would be any kind of thing.  (Even the location of the child is entirely up to the reader to determine.)

“…they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold.  Or they could have none of that: it doesn’t matter.  As you like it.”

The reader is forced to kind of piece together a society out of what she’s described, as the narrator doesn’t necessarily seem to have all the details herself.  At the same time, she asks you to make sure this lovely place you’ve envisioned is not overly “goody-goody.”  Add an orgy, if that helps, she says.  Everyone in Omelas should be happy, but not ignorantly so, and not in an innocent, story-book way either.  Just a normal, functional place that is without misery.

I like that style.  That sort of make-yourself-at-home kind of writing.  Get comfortable.  Enjoy yourself!  Watch the procession!

“Do you believe?  Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy?  No?  Then let me describe one more thing.”

The ethical dilemma is obvious.  Could you sacrifice the autonomy and the happiness of a child for the sake of an entire city that appears to be a happier place than Disneyworld?  Le Guin paints the picture of a child, gender unknown, malnourished, covered in sores, belly protruding, imbecile, locked in a tool room with dirt floors and no windows.  Whatever magic or what-have-you is at work here, this city’s prosperity relies solely on this child being miserable: “…there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.”  Many of the inhabitants of Omelas, young and old, and at varying times, can’t handle the idea and get up and walk out of the city to some place unknown.

I suppose I take the story at face-value.  Some are willing to make that sacrifice, some are not.  It is an individual decision, and to leave Omelas is technically the “correct” and moral decision.  It falls into the shaky guidelines we have created that decides what is right and what is wrong.  But isn’t eternal peace good?  Perhaps one must suffer, but is that not better than many people suffering?  What must it take for every citizen to witness the child, and be upset by the child’s misery and sacrifice, but to still live happily?  To observe suffering while not knowing what it is like to suffer, and then to decide that it is still acceptable?  Further from that, what must it be like to never know suffering, observe it, and then decide that it is wrong?  With no context, how do you make such a decision?

Anyway, this is just kind of a discussion thing.  There is that story writer in my that wonders how things would progress if a person took the child from its closet (in spite of the effects on the child discussed in the work) and brought down the city anyway before they left.  Unable to recognize and appreciate the kindness and comfort, would it actually change the state of the city?


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