37 pages 1 hour read

Ursula K. Le Guin

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1973

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Summary: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

The narrator describes the setting of the story: a seaside city called Omelas, where the "Festival of Summer" has just begun. Music is playing, parades and processions are underway, and all the residents of the town seem happy and excited as they converge on the Green Fields. Here, boys and girls wait with their ornamented but unsaddled horses for a race to begin.The beauty of the weather and scenery match the mood of the city: "The air of morning was so clear that the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air."

At this point, the narrator pauses in her description as she realizes the difficulty of describing Omelas’s happiness. The reader, she says, likely assumes that Omelas belongs in a fairy tale or a long-forgotten time, because "all smiles have become archaic." She then challenges the idea that happiness requires simplicity or even stupidity, explaining that the people of Omelas are "not naïve and happy children" but "mature" individuals living full lives. Their society, moreover, is modern in the sense that it is not a monarchy, though in other ways it looks very different from the world of Le Guin's readers: "They also got on without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb."

Eventually, the narrator decides that her readers might be better able to believe in Omelas if they help construct it themselves: "They could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here […].” Omelas could even, she says, have orgies, if that detail would persuade her readers that she is talking about real people, rather than "goody-goody" cartoons. Drugs and alcohol exist but are non-addictive, and the "celebration of courage" is divorced from actual warfare or violence, instead manifesting itself as "a magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere."

The narrator briefly returns to her account of the Green Fields, describing the people who have gathered there, "like a field of grass and flowers in the wind." She asks her readers if they "believe" in what she is relating and, assuming they do not, includes a final detail about life in Omelas: that the entire happiness of the city depends on a neglected child who is kept locked in a small, dark room. The child is physically and mentally stunted, perhaps because of malnutrition and social isolation, but "it" remembers enough of its former life to be aware of its own misery and to beg to be let out.

The people who come to see the child, however, never release it or even "speak a kind word to it," because doing so would cause all the joy, prosperity, and culture of Omelas to instantly disappear. Everyone in Omelas knows this, but when they first learn about the child's existence—usually at around eight to twelve years old—they have great difficulty reconciling themselves to the trade-off. Typically, however, they eventually grow used to the idea, telling themselves that freedom would not help the child at this point: "After so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in." What's more, they realize that their own happiness hinges on the child in more than just a literal sense: "It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science."

The narrator wonders aloud whether these details have made the people of Omelas "credible" to her readers. She says that the final detail, however, is "quite incredible," and explains that sometimes, when young people go to see the child, they decide not to go home. In addition, older people who have lived for years with the knowledge of the child sometimes "fall silent for a day or two, and then leave home." These people depart the city entirely, traveling towards the mountains and passing "into the darkness" toward a mysterious and unknowable place that the narrator says may not even exist. Nevertheless, she says, "They seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas."