“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” posits that there can be no happiness without suffering. Even in her imagined city of perfect happiness, LeGuin insists that one child must suffer extreme neglect and torture so the other citizens may experience joy.
The fundamental condition of life in Omelas is that, in order for society to be happy, the child must suffer without reprieve. The price of happiness, in other words, is suffering, and without one the other cannot exist. Therefore, the story suggests not only that suffering enables joy, but also that suffering and joy are always intermingled, and that achieving happiness requires an intimate understanding of grief.
However, happiness does not exist solely due to the child’s suffering; the narrator also suggests other, secondary conditions for the town’s happiness. They state, “Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive.” For this reason, the townspeople are discerning about what aspects of life they embrace and reject. The town is bountiful in necessities, and it has non-necessities that make life more pleasant without making it too complex: subway trains, for instance, or air conditioning. They do not have technologies that are wholly unnecessary, though, like “cars or helicopters in and above the streets.” Such things, LeGuin suggests, are too pleasurable—much like addictive drugs—and they therefore would invite emotions destructive to happiness, upsetting the careful balance the town must strike to preserve its joy.
To LeGuin, then, happiness is a complex and precarious emotion, an idea that she believes challenges entrenched ideas about happiness. “The trouble is that we have a bad habit,” she writes, “encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.” In other words, to LeGuin, happiness is perhaps more complex than suffering, and it’s more worthy of sustained investigation. Though people desire to be happy, they tend to know more about suffering, which does not, in isolation, help build happy lives.
Since suffering and happiness are interwoven, LeGuin suggests that understanding suffering is an essential part of becoming happy. Of the people of Omelas, the narrator states, “Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free…It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science.” In other words, not only do the citizens of Omelas understand that everything good in their lives is made possible by one child’s suffering—they also understand that their ability to recognize and cultivate joy is made possible by their proximity to and complicity in suffering.
Happiness and Suffering ThemeTracker
Happiness and Suffering Quotes in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How to describe the citizens of Omelas? They were not simple folk, you see, though they were happy. But we do not say the words of cheer much any more. All smiles have become archaic.
The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.
I think that there would be no cars or helicopters in and above the streets; this follows from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people. Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive.
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.
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.
They all know that it has to be there […] they all understand that 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 […] depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.
“Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one; that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.”
Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it.
They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist.