You can read The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas here.
If you could only be happy at the expense of others, would you?
This is the question that lies at the heart of Ursula Le Guin’s philosophical allegory, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.
Omelas is a city in an unnamed land during an unspecified time. Le Guin reveals very little by way of the particulars – in fact, she’s rather blatant about how little she herself knows of the city. At first glance, her self-professed ambiguity seems downright lazy. She writes of Omelas as if she had no part in its conception. The first half of the story reads like a sort of rough draft, where she’s etching out the details as she goes. For certain aspects of Omelas, she even invites the reader to decide for themselves how they wish to imagine the place.
I admit, it took me a while to understand what she was getting at, and I was tempted to find something else to read. An embarrassing number of pages later, it dawned on me that this seemingly lackadaisical approach was her way of driving home the point that this is a story about ideas and questions, not plot points and details.
There’s one thing she does establish though: the people of Omelas are happy. So happy, in fact, that we could barely conceptualize them. These are a people with no laws, no wars, no greed. And most of all, no guilt.
Despite all this, Le Guin insists that these are not a simple people. They are no less intelligent or passionate or productive than we are. They are exactly as we are, except that they have attained a level of contentment beyond our dreams.
How did they achieve this? Well, there’s a room, Le Guin explains, in which things are quite different. In this room lives a child, and this child is malnourished of food, love, and anything resembling human decency. The people of Omelas know that this child exists. They know where it is and how terrible its conditions are. They sometimes even visit, and when they do, they are generally as cruel as its life is horrific.
They do this because they all understand the condition to their continual happiness. In this reality, they could only go on being happy for as long as this child is miserable. Everything that makes Omelas unique, from its prosperity to its freedom from guilt, would vanish the instant this child experienced joy.
So, most people in Omelas learn this terrible truth and learn to live with it until it passes from their minds entirely. But every once in a while, someone decides to leave. They can’t continue living in Omelas while this child exists, and they silently disappear, never to return.
Are these few in the right? Is it immoral for the people of Omelas to tolerate the utter misery that this child must endure?
Le Guin never explicitly takes a stance on the matter.
As for myself, well… I find that this story has forced me to reexamine my own views on happiness and that this reflection has been fruitless in producing any answers to my questions.
Is my happiness as free of cost as I assume?
Or is there some unnamed person paying dearly for it?
Have I learned to turn a blind eye to the suffering all around me, as the people of Omelas do?
Is it fair to assume that this suffering is inevitable and ultimately out of my hands?
Is it wrong to enjoy what happiness comes out of this suffering?
Is it any better to cast that happiness aside, when either way, the suffering will continue?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. What I do know, though, is that these questions need to be asked, and for that, I cannot praise The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas enough. While it isn’t the most riveting piece I’ve read so far, it is certainly one of the most impactful.
This one is a story to remember.
On the technical side of things, there are a few lessons I have learned from this story.
- Contrast is a powerful tool, and sometimes it’s better to throw subtlety out the window. Le Guin goes from 0 to 100 in the span of a sentence. To emphasize the horror of a situation, she began with its polar opposite.
- The central questions of a story are often best left unanswered. An author should resist the urge to project their own views on the reader. Let the reader carry these questions with them as they go about their days. The answer they come to on their own will be infinitely more powerful than anything they read in the text.
- A story can have neither plots nor characters and still be powerful.