The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas


Ursula K. Le Guin

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The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas Summary

The city of Omelas is celebrating the Festival of Summer. Bells ring, children play, and adults dance. The atmosphere is full of cheer. The Narrator pauses from describing the scene to clear any possible misconceptions they suspect the audience might have about Omelas—most importantly, that the citizens of Omelas are not simple-minded just because they are joyful. The narrator points out that humans have the “bad habit” of considering suffering to be more complicated and interesting than contentment, but that this is just a harmful myth our society perpetuates.

The narrator laments the difficulty of describing Omelas and acknowledges that it’s difficult for the audience to imagine an advanced society in which everyone is happy. The narrator suggests that the audience fill in the details for themselves—whatever they need to make Omelas believable to them personally, so long as the citizens experience contentment without guilt.

Back at the Festival of Summer, children ready their horses for the race. The crowd gathers around the racecourse as the competing children organize at the starting line, gently tending to their horses. A trumpet blasts. The narrator tells the audience that the Festival of Summer has now truly begun. Still, the narrator is uncertain if the audience believes in Omelas. In a final attempt to convince their audience, the narrator reveals an important detail about Omelas. While the city of Omelas revels, one child is locked in a windowless room. The child’s living conditions are appalling: it lives in its own excrement, frightened, malnourished, abused, and neglected. Occasionally people come to see the child, but they never interact with it, despite its desperate pleas for freedom.

The narrator explains that every citizen of Omelas knows of the child’s existence. In fact, everything good in Omelas depends on this child’s continual suffering, such that setting the child free or even saying so much as a kind word to it would destroy the entire city’s happiness. Most citizens learn of the child between the ages of eight and twelve. Although the knowledge initially disgusts most of them, almost all come to terms with the child’s tortured existence as a necessary evil, and eventually manage to live guiltless lives despite the child’s suffering. After all, the knowledge of the suffering child is what allows the people of Omelas to appreciate everything good in their city.

Now that they have shared this information, the narrator suggests, perhaps Omelas feels more realistic—though there is one more incredible aspect of the city worth noting. Sometimes, citizens fail to come to terms with the child’s suffering, and decide to leave Omelas instead. Silent and alone, they walk into the darkness beyond the city and never come back. The narrator does not know where the ones who walk away go. Their destination may be even more un-imaginable to the audience than the city of Omelas. Nevertheless, the ones who walk away seem to know where they are going.