“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a dystopian short story by California native and celebrated “speculative fiction” author, Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018).
“Omelas” came to Le Guin when, on a road trip, she saw the words “Salem, Oregon” backward in her rearview mirror.
Published in 1973, the story begins as the people of the city of Omelas in a fictional country are celebrating the Festival of Summer. The sun is shining. There are sparkling flags, clamoring bells, and prancing horses whose manes are braided with streamers of silver, gold, and green. The procession is a dance, led by a “shimmering of gong and tambourine.”
“How can I tell you about the people of Omelas?” writes Le Guin. “They were not naive and happy children — though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! But I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you.”
The people of Omelas have no king, no sword, no stock exchange. They don’t resort to violence. They are joyous. But are they happy? The narrator isn’t taking sides, only observing. “Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive.”
We’re thus invited to imagine our own utopia; our own version of the worldly city that we believe would make us happy. Technology can be included if you like, though the narrator is inclined to think the city has neither helicopters nor cars. If the whole scene sounds too goody-goody, the author says feel free to add orgies. “Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and (a not unimportant point) let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all.”
Such offspring, as we know from our real cities, would be abandoned, neglected, and abused. Still, the narrator continues, “One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt. But what else should there be?”
Drugs, perhaps? Intoxicants? But no need: “A boundless and generous contentment, a magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world’s summer: This is what swells the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life.”
But what supports this life? Here’s where the story gets to the crux of Omelas: In a filthy, fetid dark mop closet, in the basement of one of the city’s mansions, sits a child who looks to be 6 years old, but is closer to the age of 10. It could be a boy or a girl. The door is locked. The child, covered with festering sores, sits in its own filth and lives on a half-bowl per day of corn meal and grease. Every so often, the door opens and the child is ordered to stand so that the group can gawk at it.
“The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. ‘I will be good,’ it says. ‘Please let me out. I will be good!’ They never answer.”
Everyone in the city knows the child is there. Some have come to see it, others have not. But everyone understands that their happiness, health, prosperity, wisdom, and beauty — even the city’s gorgeous weather — depend wholly on this child’s “abominable misery.”
It’s a dreadful setup in which we know ourselves to be complicit. We all live each day with the knowledge that millions of people around the world are destitute, sick, starving, enslaved.
But what if “the poor” weren’t a faceless mass of almost a billion people? What if it were only one? Like the high priest Caiaphas trying to convince the people to crucify Christ, the Omelas people’s reasoning is that it’s better for a single human being to suffer abominably so that many can be “happy.”
That thought alone generates rich reflection. But I wonder if the story can’t be read another way. What if that child in the dark is me, or you? Or what if we put him or her there ourselves?
What if the child is our true self, the one who longs to step outside the lines, to give all of herself, to worship Christ in a culture that mostly hates him? To seek the good, the beautiful, and the true no matter what the cost?
Instead, we can lock ourselves in a closet, promise to be “good,” and stifle and starve everything in us that is our truest, purest, best.
A small few in the story cannot live with the knowledge of the child in the mop closet. They walk away, always alone, to an unknown, uncertain future. Narrow is the gate. And few are those who will risk setting off on their lonely, perilous path — and leaving behind Omelas.