By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas presents a paradoxical world. The happiness of the populace in Omelas depends on the misery of a child. This paradox forces us to think deeply about the concept of utopia. How does the story challenge our understanding of utopia?
Le Guin does not give us a blueprint of a prefect society in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. However, she succeeds in giving us a blueprint for a utopian story. How does she do that?
At first, we see a perfect society, then we are given a glimpse of a terrible paradox within the perfect society. At the end, we are forced to think about the impact of this paradox on those who leave Omelas, or more so, on us the readers.
This is a transcript from the video series
Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, Wondrium.
The Case of Classical Utopia
Upon reading the story carefully, we see that part one describes the perfect society. A classical utopia provides a careful and earnest description, not only of the way of life in a utopia, but also of the political systems and philosophies that underlie it.
That’s a common formula of classic utopia. Le Guin doesn’t get into the details in Omelas, but she points to that convention, telling the reader that it’s his job to fill in whatever features he likes best.
Learn more about H. G. Wells and utopian science fiction.
The Unpleasant Dynamic in Omelas
We see what looks like a perfect society, and then find out that it’s supported by something not so perfect. The classic example, of course, is Wells’s The Time Machine.
In The Time Machine, the lovely, happy sophisticated Eloi, are living in their peaceful society above ground. However, they have an oppressive relationship to the apelike, underground Morlocks whose labor is needed to support the Eloi’s leisurely lifestyle.
It’s the same dynamic in Omelas, except here we do not have a large underclass making possible the lifestyle of a small privileged few. Le Guin takes the question of cost to the extreme. The happy citizens of Omelas can be supported by a single sacrifice. And it’s such a small one—just that one little, terrified child.
The Impact in Le Guin’s Short Story
A utopia is almost always described from the outside, usually by a visitor who stands in for the reader in learning about the features of the society. In Omelas, the first-person narrator acts as a tour guide with no particular identity of her or his own. The visitor is the reader.
And at the end, as we’re told about the ones who walk away from Omelas, we are forced to confront two questions. First, what would I do? Would I stay in a society that provides all the happiness I could imagine if I knew it was dependent on the suffering of a single small child? And second, what happens to the ones who walk away?
Learn more about Thomas More and utopian origins.
The World of Speculative Fiction
The first question is perhaps one of the most important questions in not only utopian studies but in speculative fiction, an umbrella term that includes science fiction, fantasy, and utopia. Speculative fiction provides us an avenue to imagine different worlds, different times, different species even, alternative histories—for the purpose of pushing the boundaries to a question that literature always asks us to confront: Who am I as an individual?
And utopia pushes that question just a little further: Who are we as a society? Who do we want to be? And dystopia, its not quite opposite, asks: Who am I afraid I might become? Who are we afraid we might become?
Learn more about Swift, Voltaire, and utopian satire.
The Ending of Le Guin’s Short Story
The second question of Omelas—what happens to the ones who walk away? This question provides us another lens, another mirror into understanding ourselves as individuals and as a community.
Perhaps, they walked away until they found a better place. That’s the optimist’s view since it suggests that there is a better place and it’s worth looking for. They walked away and they’re still looking for a better place—the idealist’s view, assuming that it’s better to be seeking a better place than compromising your ethics.
Or maybe they walked away, didn’t find a better place, and returned to Omelas. Would we call this the cynic’s view or the realist’s view? Walking away can actually mean suicide.
Learn more about Samuel Butler and utopian technologies.
Is Walking Away a Path Towards Hope?
These are the final lines of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas:
They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. 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.
The place could be seen as death. And the only way to get outside of a social system where the happiness of some is purchased at the price of the misery of others is to not participate.
That’s the belief that dying for a cause is better than compromising, even though you’re just jumping into the void and hoping. So, we can say that utopia and dystopia are both fundamentally about hope.
Common Questions about the Utopian Blueprint in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
Le Guin doesn’t use the common formula of classic utopia in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. She points to that convention, telling the reader that it’s his job to fill in whatever features he likes best.
A classical utopia provides a careful and earnest description, not only of the way of life in a utopia, but also of the political systems and philosophies that underlie it.
A utopia is almost always described from the outside, usually by a visitor who stands in for the reader in learning about the features of the society.
In The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, there is an unpleasant dynamic between the happy citizens of Omelas, who can be supported by a single sacrifice a little, terrified child.