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Literature / The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

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

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" contains examples of:

  • Arcadia: Averted; the narrator specifically shoots down the idea that Omelas is an agrarian paradise and notes their urban nature and advanced technology.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Does the tortured child actually exist? Is the theme of the story that Humans Are Bastards because we can't believe that true happiness is attainable without someone suffering, or Humans Are Bastards because we are willing to accept someone else being tortured if it buys us happiness?
  • 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?
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Part of Omelas' description mentions it having things that haven't yet been invented, such as floating light sources, fuelless power, and a cure for the common cold.
  • 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.
  • Deconstructive Parody: Dystopia, in particular utopia deconstructions, are themselves mocked by blithely passing over their implications from an in-universe perspective and questioning their use as narrative devices.
    • Many dystopian stories focus on the setting at the expense of any story or character (for instance, the original Utopia had a Framing Device but no actual plot). Omelas one-ups this idea by having no significant plot on the fictional level, but instead having a Metafictional plot about a narrator deciding what the setting will be based on their presumptions of the audience's expectations.
    • The essence of a utopia is being a happy place to live, but what is "living well" will vary depending on an individual's value. Thus, the narrator openly leaves many details of Omelas vague (such as their use of drugs or sexual norms), tells the reader it works whatever way they imagine works best, and dismisses them as irrelevant.
    • As readers who are used to reading dystopian literature can't possibly accept a utopia without 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.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: That a child must suffer to maintain the rest of Omelas is deliberately written as spontaneous, inexplicable, and contrived, emphasizing how absurd an idea it is that this would somehow make the town more realistic.
  • Drugs Are Good: The narrator initially says that Drugs Are Bad, but then reconsiders, finding this puritanical, and says that drooz is a psychoactive drug that makes people happy without downsides, and beer is fine too. Notably, this helps prove that Omelas is not "goody-goody".
  • False Utopia: Omelas is a beautiful city where everyone is happy except for one child whose suffering is somehow linked to Omelas' prosperity. And everyone in Omelas is made aware of this at some point. The title refers to the people who believe their "utopia" isn't worth it and abandon it for parts unknown.
  • 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. Along with the drooz, this shows that Omelas's happiness is not accomplished by restricting pleasant vices.
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: The suffering child has become feeble-minded from being locked away in the dark for so long. The narrator comments that even if it were to be rescued from that place, its brain is too damaged for it to be able to feel any real happiness.
  • 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 function, one child must be kept in absolute misery. Maybe.
  • "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.
  • Meaningful Name: Accidental, as Le Guin said that she just got the name when she saw "Salem, OR" (that's Oregon) on a road sign and spelled it backwards on a whim:
    • The name "Salem" is meaningful on its own:
      • Salem has the same root word as the Hebrew word Shalom, or "peace," and may be linked to "Jerusalem", a city which among other things is associated with the new creation described at the end of Revelation.
      • Salem is also the name of the Massachusetts town which held infamous witch trials.
    • You can't make an Omelas without breaking a few eggs.
  • Meta Fiction: The narrator speaks directly to the reader, even insisting that they cannot properly describe Omelas in all its glory.
  • Meta Twist: To the Dystopian genre as a whole: the Lemony Narrator adds the twist of the abused child strictly because she knows that the people she's addressing will never believe that Omelas can be a utopia "just because" and will keep expecting a catch, because the sci-fi literature of the time was plagued with dystopias. So not only does the catch possibly not exist at all, she makes clear that she tossed it in there just to make the audience squirm. Hey, Be Careful What You Wish For, You Bastard!!
  • The Needs of the Many: The entire basis for the infusion of the child who bears the misery of Omelas so no one else has to is more-or-less an exploration of this trope.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: If any kindness at all is shown to the forsaken child, even something as small as a single kind word, Omelas will immediately stop being a joyous utopia.
  • Perfect Pacifist People: The people of Omelas, the narrator muses, have no need for soldiers.
  • Postmodernism: The Lemony Narrator interacts with the reader a lot and there is no conventional story. May be "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 relies on the abject suffering of one child.
  • Riddle for the Ages: How does the endless torture of a single child somehow maintain the utopia of Omelas? The "how" doesn't really matter; the tortured child is just there because the audience would not believe that Omelas could possibly be a utopia without a dark secret.
  • Sadistic Choice: At the core of the story. Every citizen of Omelas, once they're old enough to comprehend the full extent of the city's dark secret and what it entails, will have the truth revealed to them and will then be offered the choice to stay in Omelas, though now with the full knowledge of the terrible price which is being paid for their own happiness, or, should they deem this truth unacceptable, leave Omelas and never return. Notably, a possible third option — to rebel against Omelas and try to rescue the child — is never given or addressed.
  • Sdrawkcab Name: Le Guin said that Omelas was named by spelling Salem, O[regon] backwards.
  • Silly Rabbit, Cynicism Is for Losers!: On a meta level, the story makes a point that a False Utopia is not inherently more plausible than a true Utopia, and to say so is a exercise in absurd pessimism.
  • Shining City: Omelas. The narrator describes the city on a glorious festival day, of horse races and music and good cheer wherever you look.
  • Soup of Poverty: Part of the child's torment is to be fed nothing but a half-bowl of cornmeal and grease a day. As a result, it is so thin that its legs have no calves.
  • 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: All citizens of Omelas learn the secret once they're old enough to understand it. The secret is only kept (briefly) from the reader. It's also implied the narrator just tossed the "dark secret" there for the sake of giving the audience a dark secret — otherwise they wouldn't accept Omelas' perfection at face value and would keep asking them where's the (up to that point non-existent) catch.
  • True Art Is Angsty: invoked The story deconstructs the deconstructions of utopian stories that show how perfect societies are really dystopian and adds the tortured child just because the audience can't accept the idea of a truly near-perfect society. In essence, the story asks why we insist on reading dystopian stories and can't accept stories where some people might actually be happy in their communities. The story at the start meanwhile reconstructs utopias, noting that a lot of people can be reasonably happy and true, everyone has a different idea for a utopia, but those stories apparently don't sell.
    This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The narrator isn't just uncertain about many details, but outright says whatever the reader is imagining is right. One interpretation is that the child being tortured isn't actually there at all and was just made up by the narrator to make the utopia seem more "realistic", the logic being that a utopia with no flaws at all wouldn't be believable.
  • Useless Bystander Parent: The child's parents must be out there somewhere, as it can still remember sunlight and its mother's voice. But they, like everyone else, allow it to suffer so Omelas can be happy.
  • Utopia: Omelas is this. Subverted in that some of its inhabitants decide, once they know its secret, that it isn't worth it, and played with in the fact that the narrator essentially drops the bomb about the secret and then badgers the audience about having forced her to make such a horrible thing up for the sake of making her description of Omelas "realistic". The Lemony Narrator constantly mentions how perfect the town is, but doesn't think the non-ironic, non-corny perfection is coming across to the reader, and so urges the reader to imagine their own version of a perfect place, rife with whatever they personally thinks is good and devoid of whatever they deem bad.
    But I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you. 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.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: We learn that a young child is severely mistreated in order for everyone else to be happy. However, the narration never quite makes clear if the suffering child is really necessary or not, or even if it actually exists in the first place, merely suggesting that we the readers would never believe the story if not for that element. Which also makes it a bit of a Take That to the audience for them being (it’s assumed) unwilling to accept that Utopia could actually exist without such 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 any more and walk away.
  • You Bastard!: The Narrator subtly takes this attitude towards the audience, who due to reading so much dystopian literature and utopian deconstructions to accept the idea that a society may truly be near-perfect throws out the tortured child just because the readers would demand such a catch when it was unnecessary in the first place. Now the utopia has a caveat and a child has to suffer for the sake of the audience's curiosity.