The city of Omelas practices a coming of age ritual in which every child, at some point between the ages of eight and twelve, must learn that the happiness of their city depends on the suffering of one abused and neglected child. The town’s children have the choice to accept the suffering of this child and continue living their happy lives, or to walk, alone, out of the city forever. This moral choice marks the moment when a child truly grows up: they now understand that their society is not unconditionally good and that their happiness is not without cost. What they do with this knowledge—either staying in Omelas, or leaving forever—will define who they are and what their lives will become.
In Omelas, childhood is beautiful and innocent. Children live perfect lives and, not knowing yet of the suffering that makes these lives possible, their goodness is not yet compromised. The Festival of Summer takes place in a lush meadow called “the Green Fields” where children run around naked. Their nakedness emphasizes their innocence. The children tend the horses with care, demonstrating how they have been taught to interact with other living beings. They speak softly and encouragingly to their horses, calling them “my beauty” and “my hope.” In contrast, the suffering child is denied a childhood. It does not get a gender, nourishment, or social contact. The narrator tells us it looks six but is actually ten—the child’s development is physically and emotionally arrested due to its suffering, and it will never be able to come of age.
When the children learn of the suffering child’s existence, their initial reaction is anguish and outrage—after all, they have been taught to be good and morally pure. However, after they have some time to think about the dilemma, most begin to contort their morals in order to justify their lives. The narrator describes these justifications in detail. For one, most people don’t go to see the child, and LeGuin suggests that simply knowing of its existence is less painful than witnessing its suffering. Therefore, the child becomes an intellectual problem to the citizens of Omelas, rather than a physical indignity to which a person has an emotional response. Furthermore, as time passes, the citizens of Omelas “realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good out of its freedom.” Since the child’s development is so arrested, most people rationalize keeping it locked up as the more reasonable choice, since the damp cellar is the only world the child has ever known and the only world it is likely to be able to process. Finally, most people in Omelas reason that, because they are incapable of changing the terms of their society, they are not immoral in continuing to neglect the child—the world is immoral for giving them this awful choice.
As LeGuin presents these moral justifications as a normal part of coming of age, she shows growing up to be, in part, a process of corruption. Most people, as they realize the complexity of the world, learn to re-calibrate their moral responses so that they can live peacefully and comfortably within an unjust society. LeGuin doesn’t judge this choice—her tone is neutral as she depicts the townspeople’s rationalizations, and she even suggests that this response is normal and sane. However, the narrator presents another option: children may keep their innocence and purity (and adults may regain it) by rejecting the terms of Omelas and leaving the town. This is a choice whose outcome is unknown and whose cost (the person loses their entire blissful life) is tremendous—in this way, LeGuin shows this choice to be somewhat irrational, but also morally pure. As the narrator never depicts the lives of those who have left Omelas, it’s not clear what kinds of adult lives they will lead in light of their choice. This omission suggests that all readers, by growing up and making compromises large and small, are still, metaphorically, in Omelas.
Coming of Age and Coming into Society ThemeTracker
Coming of Age and Coming into Society Quotes in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and the glory of desire be proclaimed upon the gongs, and (a not unimportant point) let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all. One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt.
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.