The Ones Who Walk Away

On the anniversary of her death, Ursula K. Le Guin’s most famous short story is just as relevant as it was 46 years ago.

Photo by Marian Wood Kolisch
The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not
always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often.
— Ursula K. Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

Ursula K. Le Guin’s most famous short story was first published in October 1973 in New Dimensions 3, a hard-cover anthology edited by Robert Silverberg. It won the 1974 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. In the years since “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” has been taught in classrooms across the globe and anthologized many times. Similar to stories like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” or Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl,” it is proof that shorter works can carry just as powerful a legacy as longer works.

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” tells the fictional story of a city where everyone is happy — but that happiness is contingent on a very dark secret. In response to Fyodor Dovstoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and William James’The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” Omelas explores a city in which everyone is happy, mature, intelligent, passionate, and decidedly not wretched. War does not exist, there are few rules and laws, and no discernable government.

In short, Omelas is the Utopia you’ve always envisioned.

One of my favorite lines as Le Guin explains this is when she asserts, “The trouble is, we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.” Le Guin explores the binary war between happiness and pain, and how as humans we tend to place these emotions into neat categories, ignoring the gray areas between.

But all is not perfect in paradise. The cost of the populace’s happiness is pain. The pain of one child, to be precise. The citizens of Omelas know of this child, wasting away, forgotten, pushed aside. And yet they choose happiness. We’re presented with this binary over and over again in pop culture: Isn’t the pain of the few worth the happiness of the many?

As the story closes, it talks of those “who walk away from Omelas.” These select few are presented as the wiser because they chose to leave and find a new world, one that is “ a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness…It is possible that it does not exist.”

So this is the binary Le Guin’s story gives us. Do we stay in paradise, always knowing it would be a little bit imperfect, or do we leave?

Like the citizens of Omelas, we feel more comfortable sitting in our safety, unwilling to see the price for our happiness. Because acknowledging the problem means more than posting on social media or writing our representatives. It means changing ourselves.

A Fable for the Ages

Last year I was honored to serve on a panel at Readercon in remembrance of Ursula K. Le Guin. I was there to talk about her poetry, but I came away with a keen sense of the impact of her career. An editor of a popular SFF publication spoke of how she receives a response story to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” at least once a month. It has been called a story that defies genre, an allegory of privilege, a hideous bargain, and a cautionary tale.

Le Guin said of Omelas in The Unreal and the Real, “…[its] a fable, I think…it has had a long and happy career of being used by teachers to upset students and make them argue fiercely about morality.”

One of the panelists asked of the story, “It makes us wonder, what would we do if we had to make that choice?”

My response was, “We are already making that choice, right now.”

Or, as Margaret Atwood would put it: “Where in the world [can] we find a society in which the happiness of some does not depend on the misery of others? How do we build Omelas, minus the tortured child?” When we are living in a world where most people are happy at the expense of the few, it is hard to imagine a new reality. Hard times are here, and it’s difficult to know who profits the most.

On Christmas Day 2018, an 8-year-old boy from Guatemala died in United States custody, the second death of a child at the U.S.-Mexico border in three weeks. In the detention facilities, children sleep on mats with a single blanket. Colds, fevers, and other illnesses are rampant. On both sides of the political divide, politicians push blame away. President Trump blamed Democrats for “pathetic immigration policies.” We are told that children suffer because it keeps the rest of us safe. Meanwhile, Democrats shook their heads and called the death a horrific tragedy.

My husband is a pediatric physical therapist at one of the best hospitals in the nation. Every day he deals with insurance denying coverage to children who need heart transplants. He sees parents separated from their children because they don’t have the resources to care for them. He knows the cost and burden of a child’s pain. As he counsels young therapists in how to deal with emotional burnout, he’s often repeated the words: “You just deal with it and move on.” You let yourself feel, but at the end of the day, there’s always another child that needs your help. There is no choice to walk away.

I could fill this essay with examples until it’s a novel in itself. Everyone seems to agree that things are broken. In our current society, it’s easy to feel like there are only two choices.

And indeed, that seems to be the primary response to Le Guin’s work — that the ones who walk away from the issue have in some way chosen the best route. That the only solution to a broken place is to leave it in the dust.

How Do We Make the Third Choice?

But when we give in to that kind of polarized thought, we lose sight of the real victims. Maybe there’s another way. Maybe we can choose to stay and fix the problems at hand. As the brilliant author N.K. Jemisin puts it:

“…you’ve got to fix it, especially when there’s nowhere to walk away to. You go anywhere else in our current world and you’re either being completely exploited by capitalism or somewhat exploited by capitalism. So, I mean, it’s just a question of what kind of suffering you want to put yourself through.”

(Even Jemisin herself wrote an Omelas response story, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” available in her new collection How Long ’til Black Future Month?)

Literature as an art form has a unique power. For me, reading Omelas reminds me to think outside of the box. It helps me to process Le Guin’s thought experiment through the lens of today’s news. The fact that the story has captivated readers for so many years speaks to its broad nature, its ability to transcend not just one social issue, but many.

But words do not exist in a vacuum. As Le Guin said, “Words do have power. Names have power. Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it.” A conversation cannot be one-sided. This is the power of literature — to become more than words on a page and enter into a conversation with the reader. It asks, what would you do, dear reader?

On the anniversary of Ursula K. Le Guin’s death, we need her work more than ever. We need art more than ever. To the writers, artists, creators, and dreamers: I encourage you to read “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” I encourage you to respond, to imagine new worlds, and to think not in terms of one choice, but many. As Le Guin said, we need writers who can remember freedom.

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words. — Ursula K. Le Guin, National Book Awards, 2014