In this short story, Le Guin describes the utopian city of Omelas during the Festival of Summer. The city is characterized by its happiness and beauty underscored by its close proximity to a sparkling sea. For the festival, the entire population of Omelas joins together in various processionals through the city. Boys and girls in the Green Fields exercise their horses in preparation for the festival race.
Bells clang and people sing and dance so that the city seems alive with music. In Omelas, the people have precisely what they need, and have managed to trim away the more destructive excesses of life. Despite their happiness, the people of Omelas are not simple. They are “mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives are not wretched” (2). Their lives are complex and they do not live in an idyllic fairytale, as the description of the city might suggest.
In terms of law enforcement and government rule, Le Guin leaves this area vague stating only that there is no military presence within the city, and that the people are not governed by a king. There are no slaves and the laws that govern the city are not outlined, but Le Guin “suspects that [there are] few” (2). Furthermore, the people are free from the tyranny of religious leaders, as the city lacks any priests or oligarchical elements.
Sexual mores in Omelas are left to the reader’s imagination. Lu Guin only suggests free love is readily available in the city, where potential lovers wander the streets ready to participate in sexual activity.
This is, however, just a picture of life above ground in Omelas. Beneath the city lives a nameless child who knows only darkness and squalor. This child, of unspecified gender, is chosen from the population to exist as a living sacrifice that allows the rest of the city to live in peace and happiness. The child lives in a tiny, windowless room underneath one of the beautiful municipal buildings in the city, without any comforts or social interaction save the occasional people who come to gawk at it.
Each person in the city learns of the child’s existence at some point in their lives, and most come to peer at the child at least once, though some come for a return visit. The happy existence of everyone in Omelas depends upon the child’s miserable condition, and the knowledge of this creates a conflict within the minds of some of the people of Omelas.
Most citizens eventually overcome their guilt and continue to live happily. Directly above the child’s locked room, people go about their daily business, choosing to ignore the child’s suffering by accepting it as a mere fact of life. To most, the beauty and richness of their lives justifies the sacrifice of the child.
There are, however, some who cannot reconcile the child’s wretched existence with the comforts of their lives. These people leave Omelas. Some leave when they first learn of the child’s existence and others leave after months or years of wrestling with their guilt. The ones who leave simply slip out of the city quietly and embark on solitary journeys out of the city. Though these people come from all walks of life, they all never return to Omelas, and their paths and fates are unknown.
In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, Le Guin gives a story based on a variation of the concept of scapegoatism as well as ideas derived from utilitarian philosophical thought. Traditionally, the idea of scapegoatism refers specifically to the act of blame being laid or assigned to one person in lieu of another, but Le Guin’s variation on this has suffering being laid upon the child in lieu of that same pain being visited upon the rest of the city.
In this way, the child serves a vital role in society, as his or her misery makes life in Omelas possible. This story was largely inspired by the following quote by William James, which establishes the framework of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”: “[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 specific 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”?
This story can be considered largely allegorical. One interpretation of this allegory is that the juxtaposition of the child with the rest of the city represents the sharp contrast between the wealthy and the poor in capitalist societies. A more macrocosmic interpretation focuses on the disparities in quality of life between First World and Third World countries resulting from political and economic systems that benefit the wealthy.
Though Le Guin herself offers no judgments of Omelas, she presents the idea that some within the city find themselves unable to cope with the idea that their luxurious lives are built upon the back of an innocent person’s pain. While some could interpret this as Le Guin’s subtle critique of the aforementioned social conditions, she really leaves it up to the reader to form his or own opinions of the lives of people in Omelas. In this way, Le Guin allows the reader to engage with the story in whatever way he or she sees fit. Other ways include the intentional vagueness in the description of the city’s amenities, which allows the reader to fill in the details for his or herself.
Despite the fact that she does not explicitly condemn the willful disregard for the life of the child expressed by most of the city’s populace, the language she uses when discussing the child indicates that she views its suffering as something dark and sinister, almost evil. She uses a form of literary chiaroscuro to shift the imagery abruptly from light to dark. The first half of the story is dominated by warm, pleasant imagery, with the use of words such as sweetness, joy, bright, and decorous, while the latter half is filled with darker imagery, evoked through the use of words such as horrible, stiff, clotted, and defective.