“Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. 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. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”
This is how one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s most famous short stories, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, ends. The story has been through several different publications, having been published in two anthologies and also as an independent Young Adult novel. When I first learned about the YA publication I wondered why a story such as this would be considered YA. Generally, books are grouped into YA based on the age of the protagonist of the story being around the teenage years, and occasionally based on the age of the expected audience. (But that isn’t to say that YA should only be read by teenagers, of course. YA can be, and frequently is, read by anyone from the ages of 14 to 334*.) There is no protagonist in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas". As I recalled the meaning of the possibly post-modernist work from 1973, however, I started to understand.
The story itself describes the idyllic town of Omelas, a city where everything is beautiful and everyone is happy. The day is especially happy due to it being the Festival of Summer. Processions of people are traveling to the north side of the city, where boys and girls will soon be racing their horses. The city, itself, is joyful. However, in all this joy, there’s a 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.” Further, “In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or 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.” And, tragically, “It hides away from two mops that are leaning in a corner. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible.”
Sometimes people enter the room with the child in it, but only to fill the food bowl and the water jug. Occasionally, someone will kick the child. The child spends its entire life in darkness, and is solely mistreated, because there is a dark side to the people of Omelas’ joy: their happiness, the beauty of their city, is all dependent on the misery of the child. The child cannot be helped, be treated well, or let out of the room, or all the joy in the city would disappear. “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 the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.”
This agreement with some higher power is explained to children when they’re old enough to make some sense of it. Sometimes they will go to see the child, as will some adults. “Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen this child and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years.” But as time goes on, the young people start to believe that releasing the child wouldn’t do it any good, because it’s been living in fear for too long to enjoy anything that freedom could give it. They know that the child suffering is the price to pay for happiness in Omelas.
But then, there are sometimes visitors to the child that do not go home in tears. Instead, they start walking alone. “They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman.” And then night falls, and the passage you read earlier ends the story.
Upon realizing just what sort of intense question of morality the story raises, it made sense as to why this book is considered Young Adult. YA is an immensely popular genre, with many of the most popular and mainstream books of the current era being in that genre. (Think The Hunger Games, Twilight, The Fault in Our Stars and the Divergent series.)
YA is also important because it commonly focuses on controversial topics. Topics that are sometimes shied away from in other genres are welcomed in YA. And questions of morality are certainly a controversial topic.
I believe that Ursula Le Guin was challenging readers with her story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas". She was challenging them to notice societal issues, issues of inequality and injustice, and not to turn a blind eye to them. That’s a good thing; YA audiences of all ages tend to be very open to challenges. This story compels readers of all ages and backgrounds to dig deep. Even if they know from the beginning how the story ends.
*If you happen to know a YA reader 334 years old, please introduce me.
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