Le Guin and The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas


Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier‘s and Bellamy‘s and Morris‘s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a sceptical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?

— James, William. “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life“. April 1891.

Ursula Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas was first published 44 years ago today.

It is a psychomyth, told in 15 pages of elegant, spare but lyrical prose. It comes to mind not only because this is its 44th anniversary, but also because it teaches a lesson about morality that is a kind of litmus test for our times.

Le Guin takes William James’s question (also posed in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov) and turns it into a loosely structured short story. She describes a utopia, a place of perfect happiness, filled with joy, music, light and love. But Omelas’ happiness turns on torturing one small child, who is kept in darkness and despair, made something less than an animal.

Just before the other children of Omelas become teenagers they are shown the imprisoned, tortured child, and its role explained to them. That simple equation is explained: for all the rest of Omelas to be happy, filled with light, music and love, this child, this one child, must be tortured and treated as something less than an animal.

Most of those visiting teenage children, Le Guin tells us, understand, they acquiesce, they rationalize. The greater good, after all.

But the story ends describing the very few who refuse to acquiesce, the ones that leave the city of joy, light and love. “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 it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

WC’s summary here cannot begin to capture the poetry of Le Guin’s story. You should track down a copy and read the whole thing. Seriously.

Perhaps it is time for those of us who regard ourselves as moral citizens of these United States to decide if we, too, should be walking away from Omelas?