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The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin

Title: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

Author: Ursula K. Le Guin

Genre: Short Story, Fantasy Fiction

First Publication: 1973

Language: English

Summary: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin

Some inhabitants of a peaceful kingdom cannot tolerate the act of cruelty that underlies its happiness.

The story ‘Omelas” was first published in ‘New Dimensions 3’ (1973), a hard-cover science fiction anthology edited by Robert Silverberg, in October 1973, and the following year it won the prestigious Hugo Award for best short story.

The work was subsequently printed in Le Guin’s short story collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters‘ (1975).

Review: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is a thought-provoking short story written by acclaimed science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin. First published in 1973, it imagines a utopian city called Omelas whose prosperity depends on the suffering of one child. Through this allegorical tale, Le Guin explores timeless philosophical questions about morality, guilt, and the pursuit of happiness.

The story begins by describing the idyllic city of Omelas. Located near the sea, Omelas has elegant buildings, friendly people, and abundant food and resources. It appears to be a nearly perfect society filled with music, joy, and intellectual fulfillment. Le Guin’s vivid depiction brings Omelas to life – we can imagine walking down its streets and experiencing the energy and cheerfulness of its inhabitants. However, this paradise is not without a price.

Le Guin soon reveals the city’s dark secret: the good fortune and splendor of Omelas depend on the misery of a single child locked in a small basement room. Malnourished, naked, and living in filth, the child leads an utterly miserable existence. The people of Omelas know about the child, though the specifics of its role in the city’s prosperity remain ambiguous. For the harmony of the city to continue, the child must remain in its current wretched state.

Upon turning eighteen, the residents of Omelas are exposed to the child and its circumstances. Their reactions range from disgust to passive acceptance to rationalization. Some even speak cheerful words to the child, trying to momentarily brighten its dismal situation. However, the child inevitably remains in the room, and Omelas continues to thrive because of it.

The story’s narrator reflects on many aspects of the child’s situation. Is it right for Omelas to base its happiness on the child’s suffering? Can we justify the suffering of one for the benefit of many? The narrator seems to conclude the child’s predicament is unjust, though the residents of Omelas have accepted it as an unfortunate necessity. They are not inherently bad people, but have made a difficult choice for the sake of their society.

The narrator soon introduces the story’s title characters: the ones who walk away from Omelas. After seeing the child, these residents quietly leave the city and venture into the unknown. They seem unable to bear knowing the foundation upon which their happiness rests. Their departures represent a rejection of the sacrifice deemed necessary for Omelas to exist. However, the story pointedly notes their solidarity with the child comes at a cost—they willingly give up the joys and comforts of Omelas.

The narrator ponders where the ones who walk away go. Do they travel to distant, inferior places to live in nobility and spiritual triumph? Or are they simply lost in the wilderness, perhaps dying of exposure? The truth remains unclear. Yet for these individuals, leaving Omelas is preferable to staying and implicitly endorsing the child’s suffering. They represent the capacity of personal conscience to override societal acceptance of even seemingly essential injustices. However, the story offers no easy answers about whether walking away is truly heroic or merely self-serving.

Numerous philosophical questions emerge from the allegorical situation Le Guin constructs in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. The story challenges utilitarian reasoning, which dictates that societal benefit justifies individual suffering. Omelas residents rationalize that the child’s misery is acceptable because it enables prosperity, progress, and happiness for thousands. But critics may contend allowing any human being to exist in such horrendous conditions for any reason is fundamentally unethical. Omelas citizens are also arguably complicit through their knowledge of the situation, even if they are not directly responsible for it.

The story can be interpreted as a critique of the pursuit of utopia. The residents of Omelas price happiness appears contingent on restricting the freedom and human rights of others. And while the city mostly provides for their physical and intellectual needs, their lives perhaps lack meaning, purpose, and spirituality—all evident in those who walk away. The story suggests achieving a perfect society is thematically impossible if it demands depriving individuals of dignity or agency in the process.

Omelas also raises questions about guilt, morality, and the nature of justice. Should those born into the comforts of Omelas feel guilty for the child’s predicament? Do the residents have a moral obligation to free the child and destabilize their society, or at least to somehow make reparations? If justice depends on reasoning carefully about morality, very few characters demonstrate this capacity for abstract thought. Only those who walk away seem to truly engage critically with whether Omelas represents a just social contract.

The story also provocatively suggests that exposing injustice does not necessarily correct it. The residents are aware of the child’s plight, yet very few intervene. The child is a universally known “open secret” that persists. This reflects societal tendencies to acknowledge injustice while also perpetuating it through inaction, rationalization, and indifference. Breaking such patterns can require brave individuals to make enemies and sacrifices. Merely walking away also fails to directly help the oppressed, highlighting tensions between personal absolution and social responsibility.

The open allegory invites readers to ponder real-world applications of its themes. Omelas evokes philosopher William James’s metaphor of the “barnyard,” in which the oppression of a few animals benefits the wider set. Accordingly, some interpret Omelas as a representation of first-world prosperity enabled by third-world suffering or even the exploitation of minority groups. Others find parallels to political systems propped up by the persecution of dissidents. Inequities between groups with power versus the powerless are central to the story’s moral questions.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas showcases Le Guin’s talents for thought-provoking, allegorical speculative fiction. In just a few thousand words, she constructs an imaginary world that delves into issues of morality and justice that have long challenged philosophers and ethicists. The open-ended conclusion invites ongoing debate about the many provocative themes introduced. While easy answers are not provided, the story provokes meaningful introspection about how we rationalize injustices that underpin even seemingly perfect systems. The resilience of personal conscience emerges as one source of hope.

Ultimately, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas explores the human struggle to reconcile happiness and suffering. The child’s plight and the residents’ reactions all examine where individual and collective responsibility begin and end. Le Guin masterfully gives the reader a glimpse of utopia before demonstrating its fragility when built upon compromised principles. Those who walk away provide a model of moral courage, though perhaps also of duality and moral privilege. Ambiguous yet highly evocative, this allegorical tale continues to compel reflection on what just societies require from each of us.

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