A couple of days ago I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." [← PDF] Actually, it is more of a parable than a story.
In the fictional town of Omelas everything is perfect. There are no crimes, no one is ever hungry, and happiness is perpetual. This sounds like a perfect society. But, as we all know, there is no such thing as a perfect society. So, where is the catch?
In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door and no window. […] The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.
What is more, everyone in the town knows about this child. "Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there." All the people’s happiness, everything that is so great about Omelas, depends on the child’s "abonimable misery." The majority of the people can live with this knowledge but some just "walk away from Omelas."
This is the core of the story. There are no characters, no dialogue, and no plot. It is a simple description of a society, a very intriguing one. But there is one flaw in the story (or maybe in the society). Eventually, the child in the locked room will either die—no one could live forever under these circumstances—or commit suicide. (It is unlikely that it will escape because it is too weak.)
Then the people have to "replace" the dead child with a "new" one. But where do they get it from? Who in this town would voluntarily give up their own child when they know what is going to happen to it? It probably needs to be "replaced" every ten to fifteen years. That is not even one generation. Surely, people will not mind as much if it is not their own child. But when it comes to sacrifing one’s own flesh and blood for the good of the whole town—one life for several thousand—would they still take it upon themselves or would they also "walk away from Omelas?"
It is crucial for the understanding of this society to know how they would handle the death of that child. But not even Ursula Le Guin, who invented it, knows. It is not her fault, though, the flaw is in the society and not in the story she wrote. She is only trying to show that a utopian town cannot exist, hence the name (ou – no; topos – place).
Daily Cartoon for the weekend (January 13 & 14)