The narrator invites the reader to imagine Omelas as they wish. The narrator does not care if the reader knows Omelas is not real, so long as the city feels real to them personally. LeGuin highlights the imaginative act of storytelling by emphasizing both the narrator and reader’s fabrication of Omelas. As the reader pictures Omelas more and more clearly, they become more and more complicit in the world they have built. By the time the suffering child is revealed, the reader is so deeply involved in Omelas that they are forced to consider what decision they would make. By the time the story ends, the reader has grappled enough with this decision to recognize how familiar it is to their own world. Omelas starts as an imaginary land, but eventually becomes so real to the reader that they recognize Omelas as an allegory—not a fairy tale place, but a city full of people who face the same moral questions they do. LeGuin shows her audience just how valuable imagination is by revealing how it can illuminate the reader’s own life in a completely new way.
The narrator emphasizes their presence as storyteller, inviting the audience to imagine Omelas with them. As they invest more in imagining the city, the reader becomes complicit in building the world of Omelas. When the allegory becomes apparent at the end of the story, the audience sees how their imaginative capacities reflect their own reality. For example, LeGuin writes, “Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all.” The narrator admits that they alone cannot convince the audience of this make-believe city—the reader must work in tandem to color Omelas for themselves. The narrator checks in with their audience throughout the story: “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No?” The narrator does not take an authoritative stance on Omelas’s reality—they ask the audience to authorize the reality of Omelas for themselves.
When the narrator finally mentions the ones who walk away from Omelas, they posit that, “The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness.” By the end of the story, the audience has realized the allegorical nature of Omelas, and thus, the ways in which their imagination is limited by their own reality. Storytelling, then, is not just fanciful imagination, but a reflection of the reader’s world that allows them to see this world in a different light.
As the reader imagines Omelas more and more deeply, they unwittingly become citizens of the city who must ultimately make their own decision about how to handle the suffering child. While Omelas begins as an imaginary place, by the time the story ends, the reader is forced to reckon with how Omelas compares to their own world. When checking in with her audience midway through the story, LeGuin writes: “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.” The narrator then introduces the suffering child—suggesting that the suffering child’s existence is what makes Omelas believable to the audience. Without explicitly asking the reader to allegorize Omelas, LeGuin invites the reader to examine their own notion of reality—for example, what it says about the reader’s world if suffering is the necessary element to make the city of happiness believable. After describing the decision that each citizen must make about the child’s fate, the narrator is careful to enforce the terms of the decision: “The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.” While this statement is, ostensibly, for the children of Omelas first learning of the suffering child, it is, more importantly, directed at the audience. There is no way to wriggle out of this decision, no way to change the terms. The reader’s creative freedom in imagining Omelas comes to a close with this awful decision—at which point the reader is so deeply invested in their imagined Omelas that they face this decision with the same terror as the city’s children. By forcing readers to see a moral choice in the clearest, most binary way possible, LeGuin draws attention to the fact that the unfairness of a choice does not erase its ethical implications.
Even though the citizens of Omelas are faced with a gruesome choice, the narrator tells us that, “Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it.” By showing readers this unfair moral choice and an entire city’s acceptance of the choice’s reality, LeGuin invites the reader to examine the gruesome moral decisions they must make in their own life—even though these decisions have become utterly normal to the reader.
Imagination and Allegory ThemeTracker
Imagination and Allegory 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.
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.
“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.”
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.