The utopian city of Omelas relies on a social contract according to which each person must accept that their city’s happiness depends on the suffering of one child. Those who cannot come to terms with the child’s suffering leave the city alone on foot, their destination a mystery. The story therefore presents a classic utilitarian problem: is it morally justifiable to inflict suffering on one person in the service of others’ happiness? In weighing this dilemma, each citizen decides their fate. If they are able to come to terms with the suffering of another individual in the name of the common good, they remain a part of Omelas. If, however, they are overcome by feelings of guilt for the child’s suffering, their only choice it to reject the society of Omelas altogether by walking away from the city and seeking out their individual fate. LeGuin doesn’t take a clear moral position on which decision is right. Rather, she creates an allegorical world that invites readers to consider the sacrifices that they as individuals make (or do not make) for the good of their own society—and to ask themselves whether the terms of the social contract are acceptable.
In the first part of the story—before the existence of the suffering child is known—the narrator takes great pains to establish just how happy life in Omelas is. The city of Omelas, for example, has no advertising, monarchy, slavery, nuclear weapons, war, guilt, or habit-forming drugs. Furthermore, the people of Omelas feel joy, but not at any enemy’s expense. “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,” the narrator writes; “this is what swells the hearts of the people of Omelas.” Through these descriptions of happiness, LeGuin establishes the stakes of the moral quandary that will follow by allowing the reader to imagine a life for which they would give almost anything.
When the narrator reveals that the happiness of life in Omelas depends on the suffering of one child, however, the previously uncomplicated appearance of the perfect society fades away. The narrator describes how each of the city’s children must eventually learn about and grapple with the existence of the suffering child, just as the reader is presently doing. Children learning of the suffering child become anguished and outraged, since its existence flies in the face of the perfect society they have known. Yet, because the “terms” of life in Omelas are that nobody can help the child without destroying the city’s happiness, the children are powerless to act on their moral intuitions, and they have only two options for handling their distress: repress the knowledge of their own complicity in the child’s suffering, or leave.
Most children eventually justify continuing their perfect lives in Omelas as though nothing were wrong. They re-calibrate their moral compass, recognizing that suffering is the most basic precondition of the world they live in even if they do not experience this suffering themselves, and thus, to be a part of society requires them to participate in the scapegoating. As awful as the child’s suffering may be, it seems better (at least to the citizens of Omelas) for one person to suffer than for everyone in Omelas to give up their perfect lives. Thus, most people choose to prioritize society over the individual. However, if a person decides that the quality of life for each individual matters more than collective happiness—in other words, if a person decides that the child’s suffering is indefensible, even though it allows the rest of Omelas to experience happiness— they have no choice but exile. These people leave the city on foot, in silence, and never come back. While choosing the good of society over the good of the individual results in a life of boundless happiness, the consequences of rejecting the society that depends on the suffering of one individual remain mysterious. The narrator writes of those who walk away, “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.” In this way, LeGuin declines to moralize—she doesn’t say whether those who make this choice are satisfied or remorseful, or whether they are rewarded or condemned. Perhaps this is because most readers, just like most citizens of Omelas, make choices that compromise the happiness of individuals for the sake of the greater good, and thus the choice to prioritize the wellbeing of one individual over the wellbeing of the whole will always remain a mystery.
Individual vs Society ThemeTracker
Individual vs 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.
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.”
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.