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Still Walking Away from Omelas

By Sarah Hinlicky Wilson


For three decades now I have been reading and re-reading, mulling over and arguing with Ursula K. Le Guin’s extraordinary corpus: the superlative Earthsea quintet and the lesser-known Annals of the Western Shore, the humane science fiction of the Hainish cycle, the retelling of the Aeneid from the perspective of the minor female character Lavinia, and the deliberately post-plot ethnology of Always Coming Home—but nothing has ever hit me quite as hard as her short story from the 1970s entitled “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

It’s not much of a story, actually. There’s no plot to speak of. It’s a variation on the theme of suffering children, which is offered as a reason in The Brothers Karamazov to disbelieve in God, and more explicitly is a response to William James’s rumination about the “hideous… bargain” of making millions happy at the cost of one lost soul.

The tale begins with a depiction of a place so bright and beautiful it is hard to not to fall in love with it: “the city of Omelas, bright towered by the sea.” There are “old moss-grown gardens” and “avenues of trees,” “merry women carrying their babies” while “the music beat faster, a shimmering of gong and tambourine” during a festival involving horses whose “manes were braided with streamers of silver, gold, and green.”

The anonymous narrator—perhaps the author herself—knows you won’t and can’t believe it. Joy is unconvincing. Happy people are inferred to be simple people. Our bias is to believe that “[o]nly pain is intellectual, only evil interesting.” But she wants you to know that these are “mature, intelligent, passionate” folk. They have no kings, no slaves, no clergy, and they manage quite fine without “the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb.” It is the ideal of human community:

"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 in the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life.

Omelas may have no bombs, but now the narrator drops one of her own. There is another facet to Omelas that needs to be told.

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window.… The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner … The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes—the child has no understanding of time or interval—sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. 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. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually."

The dirty secret of Omelas provokes the horror of recognition. Human happiness, and human wealth even more so, seeks to avoid direct confrontation with all those at whose expense it lives. Perhaps, as human societies go, Omelas is virtuous: after all, it is only one single child who lives in such wretchedness—the greatest good for the greatest number!

The narrator goes on to tell us that everyone in Omelas knows about the child in the dark. Young people are inducted into the secret at the right time. Good people and the progeny of good people that they are, “these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight.” Disgust, anger, and outrage follow. They want to help—but soon realize they can’t. “If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms.” Who would risk “to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one”?

So, in time, the children and adults alike of Omelas accommodate their consciences to the terrible bargain. They are very sensible about the matter. It’s too late for the child, after all: even if it were released, it would never regain its lost mind, would never trust, would live forever beyond the humanizing touch of others—so the bargain is not just a matter of preserving their own personal comfort but realistically assessing the prospects for the one suffering child.

“Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. 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. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and the knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children.”

It’s almost enough to lure you in. We are mature, intelligent, compassionate adults too, after all. We know how vast and complex the problems of the world are, how little we can change despite our best intentions, how often our best intentions go awry and generate worse problems yet. Shed the tears, acknowledge the injustice, and carry on as best you can.

“But,” the narrator informs us, “there is one more thing to tell.”

Some of the youth who are confronted with the suffering child do not return home. “Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home.” Such people walk through the city of Omelas, out its beautiful gates, through the surrounding villages, and head toward the mountains, toward the unknown. “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. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

And so the story ends.

When I first read it as a teenager, Le Guin’s story struck me as a clarion call to life—a commitment to what I would not have known then, but since have come to identify as the consistent ethic of life. The ethic of life does not admit of selectivity. The punishment of innocent children is bound up with questions of poverty; peace is not peace when it is at someone else’s expense; war and wealth are more intertwined than we like to believe. Ultimately, any ethic that allows someone else to be the scapegoat—the fetus, the poor, the foreigner, take your pick of any other favored scapegoat of history—is a false ethic, a deadly one. It is against life, whosoever’s life it may valorously preserve.

Needless to say, I assumed that the author of this stirring story must see it the same way and apply her own insight consiste