June 08, 2023

#08-316: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

"...across the farmlands..." (based on this photo at Wikimedia)

Note: This devastating story by Ursula K. LeGuin asks the question: can the benefit of the many justify the abuse of the few (or even one)?

Get Ready: Look at the question in the "Note." How would you answer it?

Ursula K. LeGuin's story, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," defies classification. It may be a horror story. Or a moral tale. Or something entirely different. See what you think.

The story begins with the "clamor of bells" as "the Festival of Summer came to the city of Omelas." This, presumably, is the summer solstice. The city is festooned with flags, and processions of various kinds move through "the streets between houses with red roofs and painted walls," between gardens and under trees, past parks and public buildings, as they approach the great meadow near the edge of town. There is music and a sweet smell in the air as the bells continue to clang.

The narrator now tells us details about the town, without really telling us anything. We don't know where it is, or when the story takes place. But we know there is no king, no slaves, and no war--because there are no soldiers. "They were not barbarians," though: they probably have few laws or rules, but no stock exchange or no secret police. And yet, the narrator insists, "these WERE NOT simple folk." They were happy, yes, but that doesn't mean they were stupid, or evil.

Although it "sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time," the narrator refuses to give us any more defining details. She guesses there is little technology, but encourages us to "[i]magine it as you will."

As the processions reach the meadows, the young men and women line up their horses for a race. An old women distributes flowers, which the young people wear in their hair. A boy plays a wooden flute. It is idyllic.

But perhaps, the narrator says, this is all too good to be true. So she tells us of a room underneath one of the public buildings, a room two by three feet (about 60 by 90 centimeters) in which a child--looking six, but perhaps actually ten years old--lives in darkness and filth behind a locked door amongst dirty mops and a rusty bucket. It is feeble-minded--whether originally or from this lack of care is not clear--and is afraid of the mops.

The child eats only "a half­bowl of corn meal and grease a day" and feels it must have done something wrong, crying out, "Please let me out. I will be good." It is naked. It is horrible.

But all the good people of Omelas know that all of their happiness depends on the misery of this child: their beautiful city, their friendships, their children's health, the wisdom and skill of the people--even the weather.

Even young children know this. Some of the citizens come to see the child, but most don't. Some are shocked, and entertain the possibility of turning it loose, but they realize that this small kindness to one child would mean great unhappiness to the thousands.

And so they are not permitted even to give it a kind word. "They know that they, like the child, are not free."

But some, unable to bear the tension any longer, walk out alone through the town's streets, through its gates, across the farmlands, and towards the mountains. Where they are going cannot be described. "But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas."


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. barbarians
  2. defies
  3. feeble-minded
  4. filth
  5. idyllic
  6. misery
  7. naked
  8. processions
  9. rusty
  10. tension

  1. mentally weak
  2. uncivilized people
  3. extreme unhappiness
  4. parades
  5. resists; makes difficult or impossible
  6. mental strain
  7. in a perfect setting
  8. without clothes
  9. describes metal that is old and covered with a red coating
  10. dirtiness

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for June 8, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. e; 3. a; 4. j; 5. g; 6. c; 7. h; 8. d; 9. i; 10. f