“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”
by Ursular K. Le Guin (1973)
from The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975)

Mookse Madness: Short Stories begins next week! You can see the brackets and the schedule here. I have already written about a few of the contenders that are personal favorites. Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and William Trevor’s “The Piano Tuner’s Wives,” two of my absolute favorites, are up against each other in the first round! Who put this thing together? Due to forces I couldn’t control, another favorite is also in that bracket, meaning that at best only one of my favorites can make it to the final four. That other favorite? Ursula K. Le Guin’s very short, thought-provoking, and perhaps too easily simplified and reduced to a moral (albeit an important one) “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

Ursula K. Le Guin died last month at the age of 88. She was a tremendous writer, unafraid to be subversive and confident that she was writing important fiction even if many in the literary community checked her off as “merely” a fantasy or science fiction author. Her works are complex philosophical and beautifully imagined explorations of, among other things, society and gender and identity. And she did it, filled with energy, until the end. In December her most recent work, a collection of essays called No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, was published.

For those of you who have not read it (and especially for those of you who have not read anything by Le Guin), “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a showcase of her gifts, packed into just a few pages.

Omelas is presented to us as the pinnacle of civilization, and in the first paragraph we get to enter it on a special day:

With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city of Omelas, bright-towered by the sea.

It’s the perfect place. And for the first several paragraphs Le Guin tries to head off any suspicions a reader may harbor. After all, when we see depictions of some paradisaical utopia, it often looks like it’s that way because the citizens are “innocent,” which really means ignorant and simple. Not in Omelas. Le Guin assures us that “these were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians. They were not less complex than us.” She assures us there are no kings, no slaves, no hierarchies whatsoever. Somehow these people are able to govern themselves and maintain peace and mutual prosperity.

Obviously, this is a true utopia, meaning it is “no place.” This place does not exist in reality, and even Le Guin acknowledges this, asking us instead to use our imagination to create this place and try to knock off as many of the things that we think might make such a place actually undesirable.

How can I tell you about the people of Omelas? They were not naive and happy children — though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose live were not wretched. O miracle! But I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you. Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all.

If we think such place uninteresting, she castigates us:

The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.

If we still don’t think this is interesting, she affords us the latitude to imagine, well, just look:

I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don’t hesitate. Let us not, however, have temples from which issue beautiful nude priests and priestesses already half in ecstasy and ready to copulate with any man or woman, lover or stranger, who desires union with the deep godhead of the blood, although that was my first idea. 

She follows this up, again anticipating any objection, with this: “let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all.”

Le Guin knows that, as much as we might enjoy allowing our imagination to run wild, we still do not believe in a place like Omelas: “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.” What Le Guin starts to describe is horrific:

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is.

This is the dark heart of Omelas, something Le Guin initially said wasn’t there. Something she suggests is in this story because we simply cannot imagine the joy without some terrible sorrow. The terrible sorrow, the horror here is this: in this cellar room (which is only “about three paces long and two wide”) there is a sacrificial child, doomed to pass his or her (it’s hard to tell, the child is so malnourished) days alone, uncomfortable, completely deprived of even a bit of the joy experienced by those above. Worse yet, all of the joy above depends on this one child.

Once again, the citizens of Omelas are not ignorant. They all know about the child. It is part of their upbringing. They know this child has to be there:

Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

I repeat again, because Le Guin does, that the citizens of Omelas are not heartless. They do care. They are not simple. They are complex and respond to this:

Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. 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. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children. 

“Are they not more credible?” Le Guin asks the reader.

So who are the ones who walk away from Omelas of the titles? These are people who, knowing of the child, do not accept the arrangement. I find this a powerful moment in the story. The happiness these people enjoyed is shattered and they cannot continue to be a part of Omelas. I think this is what most people get out of the story. I certainly have read a large number of papers and articles that focus on this aspect of the story. They talk about the terrible things our society relies upon, that we as individuals rely upon, for our comfort and happiness. It’s about exploitation. They look up to those who walk away from Omelas, to those who do not reject guilt and accept the misery of one as the foundation to complete happiness for all others. I do too, honestly, and I think this is a valid analysis of the story. However, I think Le Guin is asking us to look a bit deeper. Here is how she ends the story:

They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

I have always been troubled by this part. It seems to ask me to question the ones who walk away from Omelas and not simply honor them. Where are they off to? And with what confidence that allows them to “know where they are going”? I think the story gets even more interesting when we consider those questions.

It’s hard for me to fully accept — at least, as the one and only interpretation of the story — that the ones walking away are the heroes or undeserving of some thought and criticism. After all, Le Guin assures us again and again that the citizens of Omelas are not simple, they are not greedy, they are not without compassion, they feel for this child and this child’s suffering ensures they do their thing even better. Furthermore, Le Guin is always clear that Omelas is only a place in our imagination. What do we think is needed to assure happiness? This implicates us, ultimately, and yet, furthermore again, Le Guin offers us this child primarily, it seems, because we cannot believe in Omelas without it.

Importantly, Le Guin tries to avoid this. She tells us early on that it’s “a bad habit encouraged by pedants and sophisticates” to believe in happiness only if there is evil, and often, in turn, to find the evil more worthy of reflection. Le Guin, it seems to me, by introducing the child, commits “the treason of the artist. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em.” There’s something else going on here.

Again, I am not saying this cancel out the utilitarian/social contract analysis. The story is powerful on that level, if perhaps a bit easy. Is that part of it? Is there room to say that the ones who walk away from Omelas are the ones at fault? After all, they are doing nothing to change the social contract, nothing to help the child, nothing to shift the balance at all. They are simply refusing to live there any more. Instead, they choose to go to a place that, Le Guin says she cannot describe at all: “It is possible that it doesn’t exist.”

I think this is a key to an interpretation. As much as Le Guin tries and tries to present to us a place without evil, we don’t believe it. We cannot even imagine it. There must be something there. If the people are sophisticated and good, then they must know of and accept evil. As much as in the first part she tries to laud joy on its own and not in contrast to misery, it is a fairy tale. It’s fun because she is such a good writer, but it is not true. It really is only when the child is introduced, that element of horror and evil and misery and guilt, that the place and, in step, the story becomes something tangible and gives us something to grapple with. Pleasure and pain. Joy and misery. Exploitation. Evil.

The ones who walk away from Omelas seem to imagine a place without evil and pain exists. They must, because they leave with confidence — “they seem to know where they are going.” That place does not exist. By walking away from Omelas, then, they are attempting to walk away from evil rather than contend with its presence in their lives, which, Le Guin tells us, the ones who stay do: “They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas.”

When the story began, Le Guin tried to create place with no evil, tried to get us to imagine it. She failed. She acknowledges this. She has to inject it. The ones who walk away from Omelas think such a place exists. Are they the weaker ones? There is a clue that makes me think they are:

If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed.

There is nothing to suggest that the ones who walk away from Omelas cannot walk right up to the child and comfort it, allow the “prosperity and beauty and delight” to dissipate in favor of justice or, at least, the pursuit of justice — perhaps that’s all they want. There are no soldiers, we are told, no weapons. We hear nothing of guards. Indeed, it seems people can go see the child whenever they wish. It seems, then, that the ones who walk away are not interested in justice so much as they are insistent that they can escape. The presence of evil, particularly evil that benefits them, disturbs them a great deal — as it should. But their fault is in thinking they can walk away from it. Is this a sacrifice, then?

Well, that starts up a whole new layer of thoughts that I’ll avoid here.

I go back and forth on this story. After all, I know that it’s important and vital to repudiate evil and shun evil social contracts. There are so many. We all live with them all of the time. It makes sense to manifest the desire to change this and avoid hypocrisy figuratively as “walking away from Omelas.” However, I think it is also vital to examine just what walking away is and what it does to us and to society. Sometimes walking away is not the answer but leads to another illusion. There are fights worth having, things worth staying to fight for.

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By | 2018-02-23T16:20:28+00:00 February 23rd, 2018|Categories: Ursula K. Le Guin|5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Larry Bone February 23, 2018 at 8:08 pm

    I hope Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” does well in the Mookse March Madness Tornament. Her mention in that story of the literary “bad habit” never gets discussed in literary magazines, creative writing courses or within MFA programs and yet it seems a critical dictum strictly adhered to by most of today’s authors.

    “The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual . . .”

    The questions and considerations Trevor finds in the story impinge heavily on the current literary environment and the real world all too keenly. The general thought is mother to the specific instance brought to mind by the question asked.

    Le Guin also is reported to have said something to the effect that she hoped “commercial works or blockbusters” would not completely dominate publishing. Even in these, pain, unhappiness, lies and evil seem to sell the most based on the “bad habit” Le Guin isolated.

    It is awesome that the Mookse March Madness Competition champions the sometimes unsung stalwart short stories by prescient authors like Ursula K. Le Guin that Trevor guides us into either not forgetting or rediscovering or just that we should discover for the first time.

  2. jaynsand February 24, 2018 at 12:18 pm

    I think the point of the story is that the ones who walk away from Omelas know that if they remove the child, whether by simply unlocking the door and leading it out by the hand, or launching a commando raid (as I’ve seen some simpletons posit), the spell is broken and the city collapses into one like our world, with all the ills of violence, want and cruelty that exist in our world, and therefore MANY children suffering the equal (or worse) of injustice that Omelas’ one child suffers.

    The ones who walk away from Omelas reject the idea that THIS is the best of all possible worlds to be attained – bought by the suffering of just one instead of many (as our world is built on). In a way it’s a darker version of Oscar Wilde’s thoughts about utopias:

    “A MAP of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”

    It is darker, but it still retains the fundamental optimism that there will always be humans who will strive to make things better and reduce the suffering of others instead of sinking into complacency – and therefore reminding us of the importance to do so ourselves.

  3. David February 24, 2018 at 2:33 pm

    I had always thought of this story as one that is set up to pit a utilitarian ethic against a Kantian one. The ones who walk away are Kantian in the sense that they only take responsibility for their own actions – making sure they do no wrong in contributing to the harm of the child – but also don’t feel compelled to prevent others from continuing to benefit from the harm caused. But really walking away from dealing with the problem makes them cowards and blameworthy for not helping the helpless child.
    .
    An interesting story to compare this to is Italo Calvino’s “The Black Sheep”. (Just google it and you can read the whole story online. It’s also very short – under 750 words.) The premise there is a community where everyone is a thief and how the social order is completely upended by the arrival of one honest man.

  4. Trevor Berrett February 25, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    I appreciate your comments, Larry, jaynsand, and David.

    Jaynsand, I definitely see your points. But I’m still curious if simply rejecting Omelas is that “good.” Do we honor their resolve to imagine a better world, and think they can find it? Yes, I think so. Can we also recognize that this is a very problematic position to take, in that it does nothing about Omelas or the child? I think we have to.

    I think David says it well that this is a story that imposes a contradiction and philosophical problem. It’s not meant to have a specific correct answer, probably. It’s meant to make us grapple with the way we deal with the complex world we live in.

    Also, thanks for the recommendation of “The Black Sheep,” David. I’ve read too little Calvino, so I will go check it out!

  5. jaynsand February 26, 2018 at 8:43 pm

    Yes, we certainly can recognize that leaving the child behind in Omelas is problematic, and it’s supposed to be. But I don’t agree with David that we can simply call the leavers cowardly and blameworthy.

    I think the one thing we can agree on is that the suffering of children seems to us as humans the most egregious, due to their fragility and powerlessness compared to adults, and above all their innocence – unlike adults they cannot have had real responsibility in bringing their suffering on themselves.

    Le Guin takes very good care in her story to establish that the children of Omelas are innocent of the crime of their elders (rather like most of us who had a relatively easy childhood were innocent of the possibly dubious compromises the adult world made to give it to us). IIRC, she establishes that at a certain age (teenhood, I think) the children are told of the tormented child, and the decision is made by all whether they want to accept the deal as it is. If they accept it, they can’t be held innocent any longer.

    But she’s also made it clear that taking the tormented child and wrecking the system of Omelas will bring down war, poverty, cruelty and disease to the extent that it exists in our ‘real’ world. We can’t pretend we don’t have millions of tormented children hidden in corners of our own society. The decision to overthrow Omelas would bring that tormented fate on many innocent Omelas children to bring justice to one. In a sense, it would be bringing the same result as a violent revolution in a corrupt society, to destroy it and reduce it to ashes with the intent of eventually building a better one, and shrugging off the suffering caused thereof as the necessary breaking of eggs required to make omelets.

    I have the impression that Le Guin distrusted the merit of violent revolution, causing concrete suffering for a future benefit that is strictly theoretical and uncertain. IIRC, she quoted with approval the aphorism: “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” meaning, I think, among other things, that combatting, say, violent oppression with violent oppression is ultimately futile and self-defeating. I also recall her quoting with contempt the expression, “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”

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