Utopian Short Story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas Character Analysis

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Ursula Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas begins with a description of a joyous festival in the city of Omelas. Everyone in the town is celebrating and dancing as they parade towards the meadows, preparing for a horse race. Le Guin portrays those who live in the city of Omelas with a habitual liking for happiness, setting the theme of society versus person. Omelas is a city of euphoria, but as designed by Le Guin is somewhat indefinable.

The author does this to allow the reader to imagine the city to be anything they wish, the narrator even commenting that if orgies were better than abstinence, one should ‘add an orgy,’ if that would make the city happy. Le Guin chooses this style of writing so that her readers later understand the full cost of the perfect society they have imagined when each person must accept that their city’s happiness depends on the suffering of one child. In weighing this dilemma, Le Guin presents the problem of whether or not it is morally justifiable to make one person suffer in return for others’ happiness.

In the first half of the story, the narrator speaks extensively about how happy the citizens of Omelas are. The city is said to have been built without a monarchy, war, nuclear weapons, guilt, or slavery. Eliminating the evils of a society, the narrator invites the reader to imagine the city of Omelas to be any way they like without being ‘destructive.’

A boundless and generous contentment, a magnificent 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 really swells the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life (258).

After presenting what the society would look like if nothing were destructive, the narrator begins to describe what the community in Omelas feels like, connecting her readers emotionally with their theoretical culture. With such a description of happiness and having allowed the reader to imagine a life so perfect that they would sacrifice anything to keep it, Le Guin establishes the stakes of the moral dilemma that will follow once the child in the basement is discovered.

After the narrator fully establishes what a pleased society looks and feels like, they reveal the horrible secret of Omelas; the child who suffers, locked in a basement so that the rest of the city can carry on with their happy lives. Although the narrator describes the apparent problems with the child’s small and dirty living situation, the story highlights the more disheartening reality of the child’s unfair lifestyle. Even though the child is underdeveloped mentally from the years of neglect, it still understands the cruelty it is suffering from having remembered moments of happiness it once experienced in Omelas.

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 (260).

In having the child beg to be let out, promising that it will ‘be good’ when freed, it is understood that the child believes it has been locked away for bad behavior, and as a way of being punished. Le Guin’s readers, however, who have helped in the early shaping of Omelas, understand that the child has not done anything wrong and is not being punished for its behavior. It is at this moment that the readers begin to realize that the child is locked away because the arbitrary terms of Omelas require a child to suffer. With the surprised unfair and cruel treatment of the child, it becomes apparent that there is no good reason for the child’s denial from the loving society of Omelas other than to secure the citizens of Omelas’ happiness and good fortune.

The narrator reveals that all of the citizens of Omelas know about the unjustified situation that demands a child to suffer so that the rest of the city can be happy, even if they do not all understand why it must suffer.

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but 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 skoll of their makers […] depends wholly on this child’s abominable misery (260).

Similarly to how the child understands it’s suffering because it remembers moments of a more glamorous life, the Citizen’s knowledge of the child’s suffering is what allows them to understand their current happiness and lifestyles. Each Citizen was exposed to the child as soon as they were capable of understanding, the knowledge binding the society of Omelas together as they understand that their happiness, beauty, health, and friendships are dependent on the misery of one individual. Connecting the child and the citizens of Omelas, Le Guin shows how happiness and suffering depend on each other and how the recognition of one is essential for the understanding of the other.

The reader learns of the complex social dynamic that revolves around the child when the Omelas children learn of its suffering for the first time. Each child in Omelas, when capable of understanding the child’s purpose to the city, is brought to see it in the closet. The readers having imagined Omelas as their very own become invested in the cities happiness, and when the children of Omelas learn of the situation, the reader right alongside them with the same instinctual desire to fix the situation and let the child be free without destroying the happiness of the city. The narrator stops potential feelings towards changing the child’s condition by reinstating the rules of Omelas, clarifying that the city and all its beauty would disappear if the child were to be let out of the closet.

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’ (261).

Because ‘the terms’ of Omelas can not be changed, the children must either accept that the child is to suffer in return for the happiness of many citizens, or they can walk away from the city for the chance of one individual’s happiness.

Upon learning of the suffering child, most of the children in Omelas are eventually able to, in some way, justify continuing their perfect lives as though nothing were wrong. Understanding that even if they do not believe in the child’s suffering, it is one of the most basic standards of the world they live in, and is a term that they must accept and participate in to be a part of society. Even though the citizens of Omelas know that they can not change the terms of the society, they do have the power to reject these terms entirely and leave the city of Omelas, alone, and never come back.

These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. […]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 impossible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas (262).

If one of the citizens decides that the child’s individual quality of life matters more than the collective happiness of the city, they must also reject all the benefits that come from its suffering, making the individual no longer a part of the Omelas society. The narrator comments that they do not know where these people will go, suggesting that humans have yet to form a community where one individual does not have to suffer for the benefit of a larger group. It is hard for the narrator to describe such a place, believing it to be unlikely that individuals would be able to organize themselves and succeed without these terms.

Le Guin never says in her short story whether those who decide to walk away from Omelas are satisfied or if they regret their actions. She perhaps leaves this information out of the story believing that her readers are like most of the citizens in Omelas, who honor the desires of society over the needs of one individual. By creating an allegorical world that invites her readers to consider the sacrifices that they as individuals either do or do not make for the good of their society, they can ask themselves if the terms of the social contract are acceptable.

Having read this story, her readers can reflect on times in their lives where they witnessed individuals suffering at the expense of those ranked at a higher level, a simple example being the individuals who work minimum wage jobs for large companies making millions of dollars. With this, it remains a mystery of why individuals choose to prioritize the wellbeing of one person over that of the whole.

In this short story, Le Guin is trying to say that in today’s society, not everyone can be happy and live a beautiful life. People are neglected and in misery around the world, but cannot always be saved from what is happening to them. Le Guin does not want her readers to go ahead and completely change how they live their lives to accommodate those who are less fortunate than them, but rather to realize that things happen for a reason and that in this story, imprisoning the child was the best thing to do for the citizens and the city of Omelas. The symbolism throughout this story has a firm view of the society we live in today and how there will always be a downfall with how things work between the citizens and how they think the society should be.


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Utopian Short Story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas Character Analysis. (2021, Jun 25). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/utopian-short-story-the-ones-who-walk-away-from-omelas/

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