Omelas is a beautiful city by the sea. Its citizens were happy – “joyous,” rather. There was no king; they used no swords, nor did they keep slaves. The children were mature and intelligent. They celebrate the Festival of Summer, where processions with merrymaking wound through the streets – processions that people from nearby towns up and down the coast make it a point to join regularly. How more can one describe Omelas?
Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all.
The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas tells of Omelas, a “city in a fairy tale” and its happy inhabitants, living a content and prosperous life – all at the expense of one child. In a basement of one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, in a dark, dank broom closet, with its door bolted shut and without a window to let in a sliver of light, a child sits, bereft, naked, all skin and bones, feeble-minded, neglected, with only a bucket and two mops for company. The child – it could be a girl or a boy – sits there quietly, without any concept of time, forlorn, hungry. Occasionally, people would open the door and look at the child, sometimes uttering words, sometimes not, sometimes disgusted, others pitying.
All these people, they know that the child is there. And they all know that the child’s presence in the dank basement room is the price, the cost of living in the prosperous city of Omelas. The child’s presence there guarantees the quality of life in Omelas.
Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls instead.
The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.
But not all people who see the child conform. There are some who see a better choice; there are some who walk away. Why would they walk away? Do they not think that the freedom and prosperity and security of one child are a good enough bargain for the sake of all the city? Do they not find the terms acceptable?
They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science.
But that’s their choice, to leave. Their sense of morality dictates no less. On the other side of the spectrum, does this show that the citizens of Omelas who choose to stay are evil? Does this in any way evince that they have no morals, that they would willingly and gladly sacrifice the life of an innocent child for prosperity’s sake?
Are the people who left morally right, and are those who stayed morally wrong?
Now, like the author did when she wrote this story, I ask: are you one to conform to the current system, or are you one to actively reject it? Are you willing to sacrifice innocence and accept a life from trade-offs? Would you walk away from what exists as good and prosperous knowing what it entails, or would you close your eyes to the truth and ask forgiveness from your God, believing yourself cleansed?
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. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else.
Would you be one to walk away from Omelas?
Collected in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters
Read the story online here.