The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula Le Guin is a 2800 word short story published in 1973 that won the prestigious Hugo Award and has gone on to be discussed and analyzed in classrooms and amongst literary and fantasy readers every since.
If you haven’t read it yet, you can do so here.
In this post we will analyze and cover the following:
- A breakdown of the story.
- What is Omelas?
- Who are the ones who walk away from Omelas?
- The story’s underlying message.
Breakdown and Summary
Omelas is essentially broken into four parts.
Part 1 paints a vivid portrait of a great and thriving city on the day of a summer festival.
Le Guin’s language here is lush and tantalizing, you almost think you’re reading fantasy that is both epic and literary.
With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea… All the processions wound towards the north side of the city, where on the great water-meadow called the Green’ Fields boys and girls, naked in the bright air, with mud- stained feet and ankles and long, lithe arms, exercised their restive horses before the race.
Part 2 breaks this spell. The narrator speaks directly to the reader, cracking jokes, and asks the question–how do you define ‘Omelas’?
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.
It is then we realize that this isn’t really a traditional fantasy story but a philosophical musing of utopia looks like.
The story is, in fact, almost entirely metaphorical.
What is Omelas?
Omelas turns out to be the shared agreement of societal perfection. Emphasis on shared here because the tone that the narrator takes is “let’s describe a perfect society that we can all generally agree with”.
But what else should there be? I thought at first there were no drugs, but that is puritanical. For those who like it, the faint insistent sweetness of drooz may perfume the ways of the city, drooz which first brings a great lightness and brilliance to the mind and limbs, and then after some hours a dreamy languor, and wonderful visions at last of the very arcana and inmost secrets of the Universe, as well as exciting the pleasure of sex beyond all belief; and it is not habit-forming. For more modest tastes I think there ought to be beer. What else, what else belongs in the joyous city?
The third part of the story adds a twist to the previously agreed-upon utopia: the direct cost of all this perfection and happiness is that one innocent child in the city must suffer horrendously.
And CRUCIALLY: the residents willingly accept this cost in return for their prosperity and happiness.
Now the way Le Guin explains how the residents accept this terrible cost is revealing to the story’s underlying message. They talk themselves into it:
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 their 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. They know that if the wretched one were not there snivelling in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer.
This paragraph is followed by two sarcastically phrased questions:
Now do you believe in them? Are they not more credible?
Why is Le Guin depicting and targeting the residents of Omelas in this way?
My interpretation is this:
Le Guin is making a critique against the willingness to justify wrongful means for “the greater good”. She’s not targeting a specific political theory or method of “the greater good” (such as Communism), but she is pointing out the hypocrisy and willful blindness that occurs in the pursuit of a perfect society.
The residents of Omelas, who have achieved their desired utopia, find out that their utopia comes at a great cost. But they choose to accept it, despite the virtues they espouse and claim to embody.
Le Guin asks the question: If your utopia comes at the cost of harming innocents, is it still a utopia?
In the final part of the story, Le Guin reveals another type of Omelas citizenry: the ones who walk away.
At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. 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.
So if the residents of Omelas are idealist hypocrites…
Who are ‘the ones who walk away from Omelas?’
I think the answer lies in the final lines of the story:
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.
To achieve their utopia, the residents of Omelas sacrificed their integrity and morality.
In contrast, those who walk away from Omelas are unwilling to give up their morality to justify their end goals.
Omelas’s prosperity comes at a great cost–one’s morality. Those who walk away are unwilling to give up their morality, and therefore they will probably not be able to achieve the same prosperity.
Their society (the place they are walking to) is “a place even less imaginable” because it is a place that tries to be good, but doesn’t necessarily succeed in doing so. It’s easy to imagine a society where everything is great, but it is hard to imagine a society that tries to be great.
When Le Guin says, “It is possible that it does not exist“, she is saying that perhaps such a society isn’t possible.
When she says, “But they seem to know where they are going”, she is saying people who are truly good do not waver in doing the right thing no matter what rewards evil might bring.
This is the underlying message of the story.
That concludes my analysis of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. If you enjoyed this short story, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND reading Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed (Amazon), which is an absolute masterpiece.
The Dispossessed covers similar themes of utopian society and its critiques albeit in a different way. It shows what a realistic utopia might look like, but also gives the reasons why it is unfortunately impossible to realize.