Literature / The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

Far away is the utopian city of Omelas, where the locals are getting ready to celebrate a festival. The people's joy is untainted for children and adults alike as they enjoy music, horse-riding, and feasts. Yet, despite this (apparently) complete happiness, the narrator repeatedly tells the reader that these people aren't any simpler or more naive than those who live in other places. Eventually the reason for such prosperity and contentment is revealed...

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is a Meta Fiction by Ursula K. Le Guin, written in 1973.

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" contains examples of:

  • Armor-Piercing Question: Due to the nature of the narrative, it's actually asked of the reader:
    "Now do you believe in them? Are they not more credible?"
  • Bittersweet Ending: The last few paragraphs focuses on those who leave the city, disgusted with its "Utopia Justifies the Means" attitude, while the city itself continues as before, but there is a note of hope in regards to what the ones who walk away may be heading for.
  • Crapsaccharine World: Downplayed. Omelas genuinely is a Utopia, but one whose existence relies on a continually-sustained act of unspeakable barbarity towards an innocent.
  • Deconstruction: More like a deconstruction of utopia deconstructions. As readers who are used to reading dystopian literature can't possibly accept a utopia with some sort of catch, the Lemony Narrator just throws out the tortured child to satisfy the reader's inner curiosity.
  • Defector From Paradise: The story features the titular Ones. The Ones are people who choose to leave the perfect Utopian city of Omelas of their own will because Omelas' prosperity is Powered by a Forsaken Child.
  • Devil's Advocate: At one point, the Narrator takes on that role. Aside from The Needs of the Many and Utopia Justifies the Means arguments it presents, it also proposes that since the forsaken child is so traumatized as to be irrevocably brain-damaged, perhaps there's no reason not to extend its suffering as long as possible to save someone else from the same fate.
  • Fate Worse Than Death: Being chosen to be the one child on whose suffering the city is founded.
  • Free-Love Future: The narrator suggests that, if the reader thinks this would be ideal, then Omelas has this kind of society.
  • Good Is Not Dumb: The narrator emphasizes that the happiness of the people of Omelas doesn't make them stupid or naive.
  • Inherent in the System: In order for Omelas to run properly, one child must be kept in absolute misery.
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing: An Intended Audience Reaction. The narrator refers to the child as "it" because "it could be a boy or girl" at any time in the history of Omelas, but the effect of this trope persists nonetheless: readers understand that the child is seen more as a thing than as a person.
  • Lemony Narrator: The story is written as the Narrator having a conversation with the reader. The Narrator asks philosophical and rhetorical questions of the reader at several points.
  • Mary Sue Topia: Played With: the Lemony Narrator constantly mentions how perfect the town is, but obviously doesn't expects the reader to believe that such a place would exist anywhere without some kind of price being paid, so eventually the narrator just drops the description of the child and what is done to it for the sake of making the rest of the town a Mary Sue Topia and essentially asks the reader: "There you go, a horrible flaw in the system! Are you happy now?!".
  • Meaningful Name: Averted. Le Guin says that she just got the name by seeing "Salem, OR" (that's Oregon) on a road sign and spelled it backwards on a whim. But the name "Salem" is meaningful on its own — it has the same root word as the Hebrew word Shalom, or "peace," and of course it is the name of the town which held infamous witch trials.
  • Meta Fiction: The narrator speaks directly to the reader, even insisting that they cannot properly describe Omelas in all its glory.
  • The Needs of the Many: The entire basis for the story is more-or-less an exploration of this trope.
  • Perfect Pacifist People: The people of Omelas, the narrator muses, have no need for soldiers.
  • Post Modernism: The Lemony Narrator interacts with the reader a lot and there is no conventional story. Actually, this may be a case of "post-post modernism" as well since the story deconstructs the reader's desire to know what the catch of a utopia is (thereby revealing the society to be a dystopia) which has come about in post modern dystopian stories that critique the idea of a perfect society.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: The good of Omelas appears to rely on the abject suffering of one child.
  • Sdrawkcab Name: Word of God says that Omelas was named by spelling Salem, O[regon] backwards.
  • Shining City: Omelas. The narrator describes the city on a glorious festival day, of horse races and music and good cheer wherever you look.
  • Take That, Audience!: The Lemony Narrator makes it clear that they are aware the reader can't possibly accept a utopia without some sort of catch, so it brings up the tortured child with an "are you happy now?" demeanor.
  • Title Drop: The very last line, in reference to those people who refused to continue living in a city based on... that.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: Subverted, possibly. All citizens of Omelas learn the secret once they're old enough to understand it. The secret is only kept (briefly) from the reader.
  • Utopia: Omelas is this. Subverted in that some of its inhabitants decide, once they know its secret, that it isn't worth it.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: We learn that a young child is severely mistreated in order for everyone else to be happy.
    • Arguably a partial subversion: the narration never quite makes clear if the suffering child is really necessary or not, merely that we the readers would never believe the story if not for that element. Which also makes it a bit of a Take That, Audience! for being unwilling to accept that Utopia could actually exist without a price.
  • Walking Spoiler: It's basically impossible to discuss the major themes of the work without mentioning the forsaken child.
  • Was It Really Worth It?: Everyone in Omelas must face this question. After seeing the suffering child, some people can't bear living in Omelas anymore and walk away.