Trading Guilt for Happiness

   Would you turn your back on an obvious wrong in order for the world to live a happier life? Would you give the life of one child, so that all the people around you could live care-free? These are some of the questions we face in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who walk Away From Omelas.” It is a timeless tale that brings into question morality, and what would you be willing to sacrifice to bring happiness.

The story starts with a long, lavishly detailed description of the land of Omelas, as it prepares for a festival. Bright towers by the sea, lush green spaces, children in the streets, and music providing a soft backdrop to the idyllic city. It is a picture of paradise. Yet the citizens are a clue that not all is what it seems. “…though they were happy. But we do not say the words of cheer much any more. All smiles have become archaic” (253). The narrator spends a lot of time trying to convince us that they (the citizens) are normal and happy. Then, we are introduced to the hidden side of this landscape, the ugly truth. Hidden deep in a locked underground room is a child. As long as this tortured child is left alone, with no mercy and no comfort, the citizens above will live in peace and prosperity.

What can we see as the purpose of keeping this child, and what does it represent for us? Le Guin has stated that it is the story of a “scapegoat.” The child is punished, the citizens know of this fact, and live with it so that their society can flourish. What if you don’t agree and can’t live with the guilt of knowing? They must head off to an unknown land, only described as “going into the darkness.” It is emphasized that they are alone when they go to this new land. They lose the comfort of being with others in order to stand up for what they believe is wrong. This new land is purposely not described because our narrator has not been there, lacking the courage to head off on their own to the new land.

Many symbols are represented in the story. Some see a Christian connection, but I think a main difference is in the manner of the sacrifice. Christ willingly died for the sins of man, but the child has had its innocence taken at the will of the people. The child is suffering so the people can go on sinning. The narrator tells us it is ok to add an orgy, or some non-habit forming drugs. You may have a religion, but no clergy, who would potentially preach to you and make the citizens face their sins. There is unwillingness from the people of Omelas to face their guilt, and everything is designed to celebrate, not wallow. I can see connections in the real world. Young children are prostituted around the world for the benefit of adults. Young children are dressed and put in heavy make-up to parade in front of adoring adults. Children are forced to work long hours in factories to satisfy the lust of gadgets and clothes. This story brings important questions to the discussion, especially when faced with the idea that we allow all of these things to happen already. What would be our response to just one child? How many of us could walk away from Omelas?

Works Cited

Kennedy, X. J., and Dana Gioia. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Backpack Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. 4th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. 252-57. Print.

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