The late Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” has been a reliable staple in every Introduction to Literature class I’ve taught. This short story manages, within a few pages, to illustrate the imaginative and moral power of a well-crafted work of fiction. By moving between first-, second- and third-person narrator, Le Guin invites her readers to participate in the construction of Omelas.
Because we, in true reader-response fashion, contribute to the creation of “joyous” Omelas, we also find ourselves complicit in what follows – a miserable child is locked away, and the joy of the city, so we are told, is dependent on the child’s misery. The child is unnamed and its sex is never revealed. I imagine Le Guin writing, “You want the child to have a name? By all means, name it. Is the child a boy or a girl? It’s as you wish.” As a master writer, Le Guin writes none of this. She doesn’t need to; we’re already there, projecting on to the blank face of the child the image of children we know.
The story ends by presenting the reader with the two options apparently available to the people of Omelas: either stay in Omelas and accept the suffering of the child as the price of happiness, or leave Omelas and venture out into the great unknown. But here’s the thing – Le Guin has invited us to be co-creators with her. We don’t need to settle for the dichotomy she provides. We can make other choices. In our Omelases we can break into the basement and free the child. We can say that no society that trades the well-being of an innocent person for its prosperity and happiness deserves to be prosperous and happy. We can end the Festival of Summer. And what will we replace it with? How will we rebuild Omelas? In any way we want. Perhaps the Festival of Summer will become the Festival of the Children in which everyone celebrates that suffering is an unavoidable human experience, but that we share the burden of suffering and make choices so that a fragile happiness can be shared by all.
And perhaps the people who walked away from Omelas will return again.
Anyhow, by all of this I merely meant to connect you to this post by Gabrielle Bellot.