THE ONES WHO WALK AWAY FROM OMELAS

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a dystopian short story by California native and celebrated “speculative fiction” author, Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018).

“Omelas” came to Le Guin when, on a road trip, she saw the words “Salem, Oregon” backward in her rearview mirror.

Published in 1973, the story begins as the people of the city of Omelas in a fictional country are celebrating the Festival of Summer. The sun is shining. There are sparkling flags, clamoring bells, and prancing horses whose manes are braided with streamers of silver, gold, and green. The procession is a dance, led by a “shimmering of gong and tambourine.”

Still, a vague air of pagan menace pervades. Why, for example, are the old people clad in “long stiff robes of mauve and gray?” Why, “on the great water-meadow called the Green Fields” do boys and girls with long, lithe limbs and mud-stained feet exercise their restive horses while naked?

“How can I tell you about the people of Omelas?” writes Le Guin. “They were not naive and happy children–though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! But I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you.”

The people of Omelas have no king, no sword, no stock exchange. They don’t resort to violence. They are “joyous,” after a fashion. But are they happy? The narrator isn’t taking sides, only observing, “Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive.”

We’re thus invited to imagine our own utopia; our own version of the worldly city that we believe would make us happy. Technology can be included, if you like, though the narrator is inclined to think that the city has neither helicopters nor cars. If the whole scene sounds too goody-goody, feel free to add orgies. “Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and…(a not unimportant point) let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all.”

Such offspring, as we know from our real cities, would be abandoned, neglected, and abused. Still, the narrator continues, “One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt. But what else should there be?”

Drugs, perhaps? Intoxicants? But no need: “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.”

What supports this life, it transpires, is as follows: in a filthy, fetid dark mop closet, in the basement of one of the celebrants’ mansions, sits a child who looks to be six but is in fact closer to the age of 10. It could be a boy or a girl. The door is locked. The child, covered with festering sores, sits in its own filth, and lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. Every so often the door opens and the child is ordered to stand in order that the group who has come can gawk at it.

“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.” 

Everyone in the city knows the child is there. Some have come to seen it, some have not. But everyone understands that their happiness, health, prosperity, wisdom, and beauty, even the city’s gorgeous weather, depend wholly on this child’s “abominable misery.”

It’s a dreadful set-up in which we know ourselves to be complicit. We all live each day with the knowledge that millions of people around the world are destitute, sick, starving, enslaved.

But what if “the poor” weren’t a faceless mass of almost a billion people? What if it were only one? Like the high priest Caiaphas trying to convince the people to crucify Christ, the Omelas reason that it’s better a single human being suffer abominably so that many can be “happy.”

That thought alone generates rich reflection. But I wonder if the story can’t be read another way. What if that child in the dark is me, or you? What if we put him or her there ourselves?

What if the child is our true self, the one who longs to step outside the lines, to give all of herself, to worship Christ in a culture that mostly hates Christ? To seek the good, the beautiful and the true no matter what the cost?

Instead we can lock ourselves in a closet, promise to be “good,” and stifle and starve everything in us that is truest, purest, best.

A few, a very few in the story, cannot live with the knowledge of the child in the mop closet. They walk away, always singly, always alone, to an unknown, uncertain future.

Narrow is the gate. And few are those who will risk setting off on their lonely, perilous path–and leaving behind the Omelas.

4 Replies to “THE ONES WHO WALK AWAY FROM OMELAS”

  1. Thanks Heather! Another excellent piece!

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Glad you liked it, Phillip–the story is well worth reading–and short!

  2. TR Searls says: Reply

    I was struck when I saw this post. The mop image from this story has haunted me from my childhood when I first read it and longed to rescue the child. Your alternative perspective is thought provoking and oddly relieving as it offers the first real possibility that I could actually return the child to her mother and the sunlit sky by being both the child and the rescuer.
    Thank you
    Tess

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Thank you, Tess–right. The knowledge that there is always someone suffering would otherwise haunt us with such guilt, sorrow and shame that we couldn’t really function. We do at least have some power over our own lives, thoughts, habits, choices. And we know that a choice toward love in the fullest sense of the word for ourselves is a choice toward love for the world…at the same time it is humbling to know that our happiness in a sense does depend on the suffering of others. It’s true for everybody except the poorest of the poorest of the poor. With shome Christ is in solidarity and of whom he said, The poor you will always have with you. So I think he is saying Share what you have, walk away from/detach from the power system (which is often a system of thought and old ideas) that undergirds that suffering. But we don’t have to spend our whole lives refusing “happiness” (whatever that might mean to each of us) because other people are suffering or for any other reason. In fact, reflecting on the Omelas led me to entitle my next (upcoming) column, “Bring Back Mirth.” Dante puts those fueld by self-rightouse anger and who insist upon melancholy in the I believe Fifth Circle of Hell:

      From Robert Pinsky’s translation of The Inferno:

      “Descends the grayish slopes until its torrent
      discharges into the marsh whose name is Styx.
      Gazing intently, I saw there were people warrened

      within that bog, all naked and muddy – with looks
      of fury, striking each other: with a hand
      but also with their heads, chests, feet, and backs,

      teeth tearing piecemeal. My kindly master explained:
      “These are the souls whom anger overcame.
      My son, know also, that under the water are found

      others, whose sighing makes these bubbles come
      that pock the surface everywhere you look.
      Lodged in the slime they say: ‘Once we were grim

      and sullen in the sweet air above, that took
      a further gladness from the play of sun;
      inside us, we bore acedia’s dismal smoke.

      We have this black mire now to be sullen in.’”

      So to believe that we can “return the child to her mother and the sunlit sky” as you so beautifully put it…yes! That is a hope to hold onto.

I WELCOME YOUR COMMENTS!

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