It is the Festival of Summer in the city of Omelas by the sea. Everyone in the city is celebrating and dancing as they parade northward through the streets toward “the great water-meadow called the Green Fields,” where naked children sit astride horses, preparing for a race. Everyone is going to watch the horse race. Banners flutter in the wind, marking the course that the race will take. As bells clang joyously, the entire city is filled with music and merriment.
This opening scene portrays a seemingly perfect society in which everyone is happy. It sets up the theme of society versus the individual by depicting the joyous society of Omelas. The scene also introduces the theme of Coming of Age by focusing on the children of Omelas and their idyllic, innocent childhood. This opening description of Omelas is crucial in establishing the stakes of the story. The audience must first see this society as perfect in order to later understand the full cost of such apparent perfection.
The narrator pauses to contemplate the difficulty of describing a city of happiness to an audience conditioned to think of happiness as dull and “simple.” The narrator calls out this assumption as false, insisting that strife is a monotonous subject, and further, is only recognizable in contrast to happiness. Not only is it false to equate happiness with stupidity, it is dangerous. Artists have perpetuated this myth, so much so that society has largely forgotten how to describe happiness and smiles have become “archaic.”
This is the first point where the narrator “breaks the fourth wall” by speaking directly to the reader and begins to establish the story as an allegory by suggesting Omelas is an imaginary city that is therefore difficult to describe. Part of this difficulty, the narrator explains, has to do with the audience’s preconceived notions about happiness and suffering—another important theme in the story. In criticizing modern society’s romanticized view of suffering as interesting and happiness as uninteresting, the narrator prods the reader to open their mind to happiness as a complex emotion that exists in constant relation to suffering.
The narrator clarifies the nature of the city’s happiness. The citizens of Omelas are happy, but not naïve or unintelligent. Their definition of happiness follows from a tripartite distinction: they understand the difference between what is necessary; what is unnecessary but not destructive; and what is destructive. The narrator invites the reader to imagine Omelas as they wish, so long as nothing about the city falls into the category of “destructive”. Thus, Omelas may have “central heating, subway trains, washing machines, […] a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that; it doesn't matter.” The narrator reveals the city’s imaginary status as they describe Omelas in more and more theoretical terms. The exact details of Omelas do not matter, so long as the reader is able to imagine a city that conforms to the narrator’s loose description.
The narrator continues to emphasize the theme of happiness and suffering by describing in greater detail the principles on which Omelas’s happiness is founded, and introducing the concepts of necessity and destructiveness as important variables in calculating that happiness. Here, the narrator explicitly directs the reader to use their imagination to fill in the details of Omelas for themselves, and in doing so reveals that Omelas is not an actual place so much as an idea. In this way, the narrator further reinforces the idea that the story is to be read as an allegory in which the society of Omelas is a stand-in for the ideal society. Notably, many aspects and inventions of modern society are absent from the narrator’s summation of what is allowed in the city according to their tripartite distinction, and this is presumably because these things fall into the “destructive” category. These differences invite the audience to compare Omelas to their own society and examine which parts of it may be destructive.
Still, the narrator worries that Omelas may strike the reader as too perfect, too strictly adherent to rules to be an ideal society. The narrator insists that these guidelines for happiness still allow for a certain amount of hedonism, and encourages the reader again to imagine the city however they like: “if an orgy would help” the city seem more utopic, “don’t hesitate.” The narrator imagines that in Omelas there is religion but no clergy, sex and nudity are celebrated publicly, and “the offspring of these delightful rituals” of desire are “beloved and looked after by all.”
Again, the narrator makes a direct appeal to the reader’s imagination, imploring readers to leave aside their preconceived notions about happiness as they strain to imagine the city of Omelas. The narrator expands on the distinction they drew earlier between the destructive and the necessary, and clarifies that the perimeters of “non-destructive and necessary” still allow for fun and pleasure in Omelas. As the narrator asks the reader to imagine Omelas in greater and greater detail, they also invite the reader to become increasingly invested in the society. Again, the noticeable differences between Omelas and modern society invite the audience to allegorize the city.
“I thought at first there were not drugs” in Omelas, the narrator writes, “but that is puritanical.” Thus, the narrator supposes, there is an ecstasy-inducing drug named drooz in Omelas, and it is not even habit-forming. However, few people would need drooz, the narrator suspects, because the city feels “a boundless and generous contentment” all the time anyway. The city celebrates victory and courage, but has no soldiers—“the victory they celebrate is that of life.” There is no guilt in Omelas.
The themes of Happiness and Suffering and Imagination and Allegory continue to entangle when the narrator considers the presence of drugs and war in Omelas. The narrator invites the reader to imagine how drugs and victory might exist in a way that doesn’t depend on destruction. The narrator strains to imagine pleasure without destruction in considering drugs and victory’s existence in Omelas, nodding to one of the story’s moral lessons: that happiness always exists in relation to suffering. Again, while the narrator does not explicitly ask the reader to compare their own society to Omelas, the calculated differences between Omelas and the reader’s society encourage the reader to allegorize the city of Omelas.
The narrator returns to the Festival of Summer. The parades of people have mostly reached the fields where the children’s horse race is held. The scene is impossibly idyllic. There is good food, and the children’s faces are “amiably sticky”. An old woman passes out flowers. A boy plays the flute as children ready their horses at the starting line, speaking to them gently and affectionately: “Quiet, quiet, there my beauty, my hope.” The crowd flanking the racecourse looks like a field. The narrator announces to the reader that “the Festival of Summer has begun,” then pauses to ask the reader directly whether they believe in this scene: “Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy?” If not, the narrator will reveal one more detail about Omelas.
After exploring happiness in Omelas at length, the narrator returns to the picturesque scene of the Festival of Summer. The theme of the individual versus society resurfaces as the narrator focuses on the city’s society moving as one organic being. Again, the narrator pays special attention to the children of Omelas, describing their joy and emotional attentiveness to their horses, and generally portraying childhood in Omelas as idealistic. This is significant because it lays the groundwork for what the narrator will later reveal about these children’s coming of age. The narrator again breaks the fourth wall as they ask readers whether they believe in the scene. Thus, the reader’s imagination is tested once again. In supposing that the reader does not believe the scene, the narrator gestures toward the story’s explicitly allegorical—rather than realistic—presentation. The narrator seems to suggest that, if a reader cannot believe in a fully happy society, this must reflect something about the reader’s beliefs about human society in general.
In a dark, windowless room in a basement beneath one of the city’s public buildings lives a malnourished child. The room is tiny, about the size of a broom closet. The child shares the room with a couple of “clotted, foul-smelling” mops and a rusty bucket. The narrator suggests that the child’s gender is irrelevant, and refers to the child using the pronoun “it”. The child is severely underdeveloped both physically and mentally; “it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.” The child is terrified of the mops and shuts its eyes in fear, but nothing will ever change. “The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes,” except, on occasion, a person (or a few), to refill the child’s water jug and food bowl. The people who come to the door do not speak to the child, only “peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes.”
The narrator moves from the bird’s eye view of thriving Omelas society to a close-up on an individual child whose dark, miserable, and lonely experience contrasts dramatically the Festival of Summer unfolding aboveground. Whereas until now the narrator has focused on depicting the great happiness of Omelas as a whole, they now turn their focus to the other half of the equation: a suffering individual. The child experiences suffering in all aspects of its life: mental, emotional, and physical. Its existence could not be more different from the idyllic childhood of the other Omelas youths. The narrator focuses on the child’s stunted growth to highlight how the child is denied its own coming of age or even a sense of selfhood.
The child has not always lived in the locked room. In fact, it remembers “sunlight and its mother’s voice.” Though no one speaks to the child, the child begs the people who visit it for release, promising to “be good.” The narrator reveals that the child used to scream and cry constantly, but after years of neglect, it now only whimpers pathetically, and hardly ever speaks. It is naked, gaunt, and covered in festering sores from sitting “in its own excrement continually.” Its stomach is bloated from starvation, for “it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day.”
The story returns to the relationship between happiness and suffering when the narrator mentions the child’s memory of its mother and sunlight. Because the child has experienced these moments of happiness, it has a frame of reference in which to contextualize its current state of misery. The child desperately wants to be released, and begs its visitors for help. Where the cries and noise from the Festival of Summer indicated joy and a sense of community, the child’s cries and noises indicate abject misery and loneliness. While the children of Omelas are naked because they are free of shame, the child is naked because it lacks proper care. While the children of Omelas eat treats at the Festival of Summer, the child is limited to corn meal and grease.
This child’s existence is not a secret. Everyone in Omelas knows about it, whether they have seen the child personally or simply know of its existence. Every citizen knows that everything good in their lives (“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”) exists because of this child’s suffering. Some citizens understand why this is, while others do not, but all understand that the perfection of Omelas depends on the child’s abject misery.
After contrasting the child’s loneliness and suffering with the happy society of Omelas, the narrator reveals that everyone in Omelas knows about this awful contrast and still, no one does anything to help the child. Happiness versus Suffering and the Individual versus Society are not just implicit themes in this text—rather, the extreme contrast between the suffering of the individual and the happiness of society is the very foundation of Omelas. While all societies have some imbalance between the happiness of some and the suffering of others, the extreme and seemingly arbitrary law of Omelas (that one child must suffer for everyone else’s happiness) throws such imbalances into sharp relief.
Learning about the child’s existence is a sort of coming-of-age ritual in Omelas—an experience each child has, usually between the ages of eight and twelve. Despite the justifications they are given, each child reacts in disgust and anger. Their first instinct is to help the child out of its miserable situation, though they are able to override this instinct by reminding themselves that helping the child will ruin everyone else’s happiness, causing “all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas” to “wither and be destroyed.” There is no way around this predicament. The narrator states that “the terms are strict and absolute,” though they never state why this is the case. Thus, to live in Omelas is to accept this child’s misery as a condition of one’s happiness.
The narrator explains that learning of this awful imbalance—that the citizens of Omelas only experience happiness because of one child’s awful suffering—is how one comes of age in Omelas. Because the children of Omelas experience perfect and idealistic childhoods, their first reaction to the suffering child is outrage that it is subjected to such an unfair rule, and disgust for the child’s condition (as well as the fact that every adult in Omelas, the people who have raised them to be good and moral, are complicit in this child’s suffering). The narrator creates an important thematic opposition between happiness and suffering, and between the individual and society, by emphasizing the strict nature of Omelas’s rules: all happiness for the whole society must rely on the complete misery of an individual child.
Despite the initial trauma of learning about the child, most citizens come to justify their inaction. For some it takes weeks, for others, years, but eventually almost everyone comes to accept the predicament. The narrator runs through their reasoning: even if the child were released, it would not be able to experience much joy due to its underdevelopment. “It has been afraid too long to ever be free of fear,” they reason, and they are not cruel for neglecting the child, since they are helpless to change its circumstances. The children’s “tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it.”
Although the idealistic children initially react with compassion (as they have been raised to be moral), each child ultimately finds their own way of justifying their inaction and neglect of the suffering child. This is the true coming of age ritual of Omelas: learning how to justify one’s immoral actions, given the amoral nature of reality. As the children come of age in Omelas, they come into their place in a society that depends on its members’ ability to turn a blind eye to injustice. Thus, the children are bound to the rest of Omelas society by their knowledge of the suffering child and their collective neglect. Growing up in Omelas requires children to understand the true and tragic price of their society’s happiness.
The people of Omelas do not forget about the child’s misery. Rather, their understanding of the child’s misery allows them to more deeply understand and appreciate their own happiness. The narrator assures the audience that “Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness.” They understand that they are indebted to the child for its suffering. As much as the child is a slave to its misery, the people of Omelas are enslaved to the child’s situation—all are powerless to change the terms of their existence. None are truly free.
The narrator clarifies that, while the people of Omelas justify neglecting a suffering child, they do not take this decision lightly. The knowledge of the suffering child forces the citizens of Omelas to recognize the interrelated nature of happiness and suffering. Even though they realize that they are indebted to the child, they refuse to help it. In this passage, the narrator explains that, at least in Omelas, happiness cannot exist without suffering, and that accepting this reality is how one grows up and truly joins society. Even though the citizens of Omelas are the ones who benefit from the extreme dictum that the child must suffer for the whole of society’s happiness, they know that they are locked into this structure as much as the child is locked in its broom closet.
The narrator pauses to ask the audience if they believe in Omelas now, after learning about the child. The narrator suggests that this cruel situation makes Omelas “more credible.” Yet, there is another detail about Omelas that is “quite incredible.”
The narrator suggests that Omelas’s terrible secret is what makes it “more credible” to the reader, implying that the reader finds a city with a cruel, unjust secret to be more realistic than a city of perfect happiness. This invites the reader to examine their expectations for happiness in their own society, and encourages the reader to allegorize Omelas. The narrator suggests that what one can and cannot imagine is always deeply reflective of one’s own reality. If it is impossible for the reader to imagine a truly happy society, this impasse must reflect on the reader’s own societal experiences.
Though most citizens of Omelas come to accept the awful predicament of the child’s misery, some do not. Sometimes citizens decide to reject the terms of life in Omelas—something they can only do by leaving the city, alone, in total silence. These citizens walk into the darkness beyond Omelas and never come back. The narrator does not know where they go, for it is impossible to imagine—the place might not even exist. Still, the ones who walk away from Omelas do so with a sense of purpose, seeming “to know where they are going.”
While the theme of the individual versus society has previously come out in the contrast between the individual child’s suffering and the collective happiness of Omelas society, Le Guin ends the story by introducing individualism in a new way: through the difficult decision made by “the ones who walk away.” Though citizens are unable to change the structure that requires the child to suffer for the city’s happiness, citizens can choose to disengage with Omelas society altogether by leaving Omelas. Leaving Omelas is an ultimate act of individualism, as it requires one to reject the comfort of society in a stand for one’s own sense of morality. The narrator does not say whether walking away is right or wrong, but once more asks the audience to reflect on the limits of their own ability to imagine an alternative to a city like Omelas. That it is impossible for the reader and narrator to imagine what lies beyond Omelas implies that it is impossible for humans to imagine a society without unjust suffering. Still, certain individuals will strike out on their own to live by their morals, on their own terms.