City of Omelas
Before continuing, I urge you to read Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant work: Those Who Walk Away From Omelas. In order for me to discuss this work, I’ll have to reveal a plot twist that is best read for yourself. Guin’s work is free to read online with a Google search and enough browsing. Those Who Walk Away From Omelas is a very short read and can be finished in 15 to 35 minutes.
Throughout the story, Guin narrates the splendor of the theoretical city of Omelas. In the beginning, Guin richly describes the city of Omelas. She paints an idyllic and lively city, with red roofs, moss-grown gardens, green meadows, sunlit air, music, people dancing, and beautiful pastures. Guin further specifies the sort of city and citizens Omelas possesses. Omelas doesn’t indulge in slavery, monarchy, stock exchanges, secret police, monarchy, or oppressive bureaucracy. All that is bad is disposed of and all that is good is kept. All that is neither bad nor good is also kept. Guin emphasizes that Omelas isn’t superficial. Its citizens and children experience a fulfilled and significant form of happiness. They aren’t naive, stupid, nor brainwashed. They are intelligent, strong, mature, and passionate people.
There are no constraints to Omelas. Omelas can be as technologically advanced as us if not more, or even primitive. Omelas can have subway trains, central heating, a cure for all diseases, or none of it. Guin urges us to imagine Omelas in any way possible in order to make it realistic for us. The only rule is that Omelas is beautiful and its citizens experience a fulfilled, intelligent, and meaningful happiness.
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The Boy in The Basement
Yet, Guin acknowledges that Omelas might not be believable for the reader. That's when Guin tells us the caveat. In a basement under Omelas, a malnutritioned, scared, and mentally retarded 10-year-old boy lives in darkness, filth, and misery. The boy, despite being in the basement for most of his life, still remembers sunlight and its mother. Thus the child cries for help at night and festers in its own filth while no one helps him other than serving a small bowl of corn-grease and water to keep him alive.
No one helps the child due to the secret contract governing the town. Any act of kindness to the boy, big or small, will ruin Omelas and all of its people’s happiness. Every citizen aged 8 and onwards is aware of this contract and everyone is equally horrified, sickened, disgusted, and empathetic. Despite that, everyone accepts that the happiness of one child must be sacrificed for the happiness of many. And in a way, every citizen is grateful for that child and better appreciate their lives knowing that a child sacrificed his happiness on their behalf.
Every so often, a child or adult who understands the truth behind Omelas leaves Omelas. They walk away into the darkness and don’t come back. They walk somewhere that not even Guin could imagine in order to escape the system.
Suffering, Happiness, and the Failure of Utopia
Encapsulated in roughly 4 pages, Guin offers a thematically rich look into reality, suffering, happiness, and morality. Guin speaks to the reader as if they were in the same room. This is not so much a work of fiction as it is a thought experiment. For most of the story, Guin spends time establishing how prosperous Omelas is and how it can be anything we imagine so long its citizens live a meaningful and happy life. She is trying to convince us that such a city exists. Yet she ultimately fails to convince us.
When this fails, Guin tells us about the boy in the basement. Ultimately, in order to attain happiness, one must understand what suffering is. Without the child suffering, Omelas becomes a vapid utopia. How could its citizens possibly understand how happy they are without reference to the complete opposite. By feeding the child and taking him into their society, they destroy what keeps their city tethered to the ground. Similarly, the boy in the basement possesses knowledge of his mother and sunlight. He understands that his life wasn’t miserable from the start, and as a result, he suffers. It's this revelation that we readers anticipate when reading about a utopia. But for some reason, we knew there could be no perfect society, but why?
To quote Guin, “Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. 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.”
Guin is saying that Omelas’s happiness is dependent on the suffering of the child and the child’s suffering is dependent on their happiness. How can one understand what light looks like if one lives in darkness and how can one know what darkness is without seeing light? There is no perfect society and there is no life filled with complete happiness because there will always be suffering. Yet likewise, there is no life of complete suffering because there will always be some happiness. This is why the ideal society, the utopia, can never exist. The basic idea of Omelas butts against reality and we can sense it.
One for All or All for One?
Furthermore, Guin explores the ethics of Omelas. If put in the situation that we knew the condition of the child and the city, would we free the child, imprison the child, or walk away? Guin emphasizes that freeing the child would ruin the happiness of the city. Profound, moral, intelligent, and immeasurable happiness. The happiness of citizens who are grateful for the child, and understand the child’s sacrifice.
Is it moral to sacrifice the happiness of thousands in the chance that the child is happy? Would one happy child compensate for the misery of everybody? It's a hard choice, but Guin seemingly suggests that it's best to walk away. The moral calculus suggests that it's not right to free the child. But walking away from this society in pursuit of something better seems to be a better answer. Guin’s work can be an allegory for capitalism or society in general. There is a prosperous many and a suffering few. Our society functions this way. But is that the best we can do?
Guin suggests that we must strive for utopia, even if it doesn’t exist. Despite the utopia being unimaginable, even to Guin herself, we must look beyond. Pursuing a perfect society isn’t naive, it's necessary. The pursuit of a system where we can all be happy is a moral cause, even if it might be impossible. We mustn’t accept the way society works but rather work to improve it.
The Optimism of Omelas
Those Who Walk Away From Omelas isn’t a depressing story, but an optimistic one. We can’t acknowledge a life of happiness without suffering. However, we can’t acknowledge a life of suffering without some happiness. A utopia is impossible. But despite that, we should strive for a perfect society, not because it's naive, but because it's necessary to improve the world we live in.