“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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