In Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” the town of Omelas is depicted as a thriving, successful, utopia with the exception of one thing. The dark secret of the city is that a child is locked below the grounds, sitting in misery, alone, abandoned, and abused. The people of Omelas are aware of the child, and know it is down there, but they do nothing for the child since child’s sacrifice is the source of the city’s happiness and success. In Le Guin’s story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” the city’s happiness and success can not exist without understanding the pain of the child locked away and the corresponding empathy of the citizens.
Throughout the entirety of the story of the Omelas, the pain of the child suffering and the empathy of the citizens of Omelas is juxtaposed against the happiness of the city in that one can not exist without the other. The children of Omelas first learn empathy when they learn about the locked away child during adolescence. Their immediate reaction is anger, resentment and the need to help the child. Upon first realizing the cruelty of the situation, the adolescent Omelas “would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do” (252). Some of the people and children of Omelas are frustrated because they want to help the child, but know that the city will collapse on itself with out the sacrifice of the child. The compassion and empathy of the people of Omelas is what is used to recognize the happiness they wouldn’t have if not for the sacrificial child. The people Omelas acknowledge, “if the wreteched one were not there sniveling in the dark, the other one, the flute player could not make joyful music” (252). Since the people of Omelas correlate all of their city’s success and happiness with the exchange of the sacrifice of a child, the Omelains recognize that all of their joy would not exist if the pain of the child and their empathy didn’t exist.
Because the child is living in misery and the Omelas are not, they can better understand that their life is happy and wonderful because it is not the same life the child has to endure through the empathy the feel towards the child. As the narrator explains the wretched compromise of the city, it is evident that the people of Omelas know about the child’s suffering, but some of the citizens live their lives regardless of it. The Omelas live in the way that
“Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery” (252).
Recognizing that the child’s misery as the source of their happiness forces the Omelas to understand the pain of the child in order to enjoy their happiness. If the Omelas were unable to be empathetic and understand the sacrifice of the child, their happiness would be irrelevant because there would be nothing to compare it to.
The people of Omelas are said to “know compassion” and are sympathetic towards the child but still do nothing for it because of the success the child’s sacrifice brings to the city. One of the effects the sacrificial child has on the city of Omelas is explained, as “It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children.” (253). The reason the child is the main source of success for the city of Omelas is not a tangible exchange of the child for good soil, happy people, or successful business, but it is what they learn from the child that makes the Omelains successful as a society. Because the Omelains know about the existence of the child “their knowledge [of its existence], makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science” (253). The success of the city is not materialistic, but rather lays in the success of the people themselves and the lessons of compassion, empathy, and concern that they learn from grieving for the child locked beneath the city.
Although the people of Omelas have empathy for the child, their empathy is also what helps them justify that the child should never be released. The citizens of Omelas have concluded that the child would not even be able to function in society, were it to be released. The thoughts of the Omelains are that “If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place… that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed” (252). The Omelas fear that the child would not have the same happiness and enjoy the pleasures of the world as much as the rest of the society and decided that the child would be isolated whether it were in or out from under the city because of its time spent in abuse. The Omelas “begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy”(253). Because of the conditions the child has lived in, the Omelains believe that the child would not appreciate the joy and the success of the city, which would make the sacrifice of the child purposeless. In order to be successful, utopian society, the city of Omelas and its members need to be happy, and if everyone is not happy, the city is not considered successful.
The majority of the current citizens of Omelas live their entire lives empathetic towards the child locked away whereas the citizens who choose to walk away from Omleas waver on accepting that the sacrifice and pain of one is worth the happiness of the city. The citizens who chose to leave the community, “They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness” (253). The citizens who recognize the child’s sacrifice leave the city for a release of the burden of living off the misery of a child. Additionally, the people of Omelas who choose to leave are described as “they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas” (253). The defiance and tenacity required to reject the societal construction of being empathetic towards the child and doing nothing to help it, gives those who walk away from Omleas the ability to leave the city with assurance of their decision. The place where those who leave Omelas go to is unknown but those who leave have chosen the unknown over complying with the sacrifice of one for the greater good. The ones who walk away reject empathy as a solution towards the situation of the child, and instead remove themselves from the situation entirely
Throughout the entirety of Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” the battle of happiness vs. the pain of the child and the empathy of the citizens are explored. The short story delves into the complexities of emotion and how happiness can not exist without understanding and experiencing sadness, empathy and pain. Additionally, themes of sacrifice for the greater good and being empathetic towards a situation with no solutions are investigated.