The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

 

By Ursula K. Le Guin

 

With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came

to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. The rigging of the boats in harbor

sparkled with flags. In the streets between houses with red roofs and painted walls,

between old moss-grown gardens and under avenues of trees, past great parks and

public buildings, processions moved. Some were decorous: old people in long stiff

robes of mauve and grey, grave master workmen, quiet, merry women carrying

their babies and chatting as they walked. In other streets the music beat faster, a

shimmering of gong and tambourine, and the people went dancing, the procession

was a dance. Children dodged in and out, their high calls rising like the swallows'

crossing flights over the music and the singing. All the processions wound towards

the north side of the city, where on the great water-meadow called the Green Fields

boys and girls, naked in the bright air, with mud-stained feet and ankles and long,

lithe arms, exercised their restive horses before the race. The horses wore no gear at

all but a halter without bit. Their manes were braided with streamers of silver,

gold, and green. They flared their nostrils and pranced and boasted to one another;

they were vastly excited, the horse being the only animal who has adopted our

ceremonies as his own. Far off to the north and west the mountains stood up half

encircling Omelas on her bay. The air of morning was so clear that the snow still

crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit

air, under the dark blue of the sky. There was just enough wind to make the

 

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banners that marked the racecourse snap and flutter now and then. In the silence of

the broad green meadows one could hear the music winding through the city

streets, farther and nearer and ever approaching, a cheerful faint sweetness of the

air that from time to time trembled and gathered together and broke out into the

great joyous clanging of the bells.

Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?

They were not simple folk, you see, though they were happy. But we do not say the

words of cheer much any more. All smiles have become archaic. Given a description

such as this one tends to make certain assumptions. Given a description such as

this one tends to look next for the King, mounted on a splendid stallion and

surrounded by his noble knights, or perhaps in a golden litter borne by greatmuscled

slaves. But there was no king. They did not use swords, or keep slaves.

They were not barbarians. I do not know the rules and laws of their society, but I

suspect that they were singularly few. As they did without monarchy and slavery,

so they also got on without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police,

and the bomb. Yet I repeat that these were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds,

noble savages, bland utopians. They were not less complex than us. The trouble is

that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering

happiness as something rather stupid. 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. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man,

nor make any celebration of joy. How can I tell you about the people of Omelas?

They were not naive and happy children--though their children were, in fact, happy.

They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O

miracle! but I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you. 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. For instance, how

about technology? I think that there would be no cars or helicopters in and above

the streets; this follows from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people.

Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither

necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive. In the middle category, however-

-that of the unnecessary but undestructive, that of comfort, luxury, exuberance, etc.-

-they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines,

and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources,

fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that; it

doesn't matter. As you like it. I incline to think that people from towns up and down

the coast have been coming in to Omelas during the last days before the Festival on

very fast little trains and double-decked trams, and that the train station of Omelas

is actually the handsomest building in town, though plainer than the magnificent

 

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Farmers' Market. But even granted trains, I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of

you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If

an orgy would help, don't hesitate. Let us not, however, have temples from which

issue beautiful nude priests and priestesses already half in ecstasy and ready to

copulate with any man or woman, lover or stranger, who desires union with the

deep godhead of the blood, although that was my first idea. But really it would be

better not to have any temples in Omelas--at least, not manned temples. Religion

yes, clergy no. Surely the beautiful nudes can just wander about, offering

themselves like divine soufflés to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the

flesh. Let them join the processions. Let tambourines be struck above the

copulations, and the glory of desire be proclaimed upon the gongs, and (a not

unimportant point) let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked

after by all. One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt. But what else

should there be? I thought at first there were not drugs, but that is puritanical. For

those who like it, the faint insistent sweetness of drooz may perfume the ways of

the city, drooz which first brings a great lightness and brilliance to the mind and

limbs, and then after some hours a dreamy languor, and wonderful visions at last of

the very arcana and inmost secrets of the Universe, as well as exciting the pleasure

of sex beyond belief; and it is not habit-forming. For more modest tastes I think

there ought to be beer. What else, what else belongs in the joyous city? The sense of

victory, surely, the celebration of courage. But as we did without clergy, let us do

without soldiers. The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy;

it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial. A boundless and generous contentment, a

magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with

the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the

world's summer: this is what swells the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the

victory they celebrate is that of life. I really don't think many of them need to take

drooz.

Most of the procession have reached the Green Fields by now. A marvelous smell of

cooking goes forth from the red and blue tents of the provisioners. The faces of small

children are amiably sticky; in the benign grey beard of a man a couple of crumbs of

rich pastry are entangled. The youths and girls have mounted their horses and are

beginning to group around the starting line of the course. An old women, small, fat,

and laughing, is passing out flowers from a basket, and tall young men where her

flowers in their shining hair. A child of nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd,

alone, playing on a wooden flute. People pause to listen, and they smile, but they do

not speak to him, for he never ceases playing and never sees them, his dark eyes

wholly rapt in the sweet, thin magic of the tune.

He finishes, and slowly lowers his hands holding the wooden flute.

As if that little private silence were the signal, all at once a trumpet sounds from

the pavilion near the starting line: imperious, melancholy, piercing. The horses rear

 

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on their slender legs, and some of them neigh in answer. Sober-faced, the young

riders stroke the horses' necks and soothe them, whispering, "Quiet, quiet, there my

beauty, my hope...." They begin to form in rank along the starting line. The crowds

along the racecourse are like a field of grass and flowers in the wind. The Festival of

Summer has begun.

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me

describe one more thing.

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. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards,

secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of

the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads stand near a

rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is.

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. It picks its

nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in

the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It

finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there;

and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody

ever comes, except that sometimes--the child has no understanding of time or

interval--sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several

people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up.

The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The

food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear.

The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived

in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother's voice, sometimes

speaks. "I will be good," it says. "Please let me out. I will be good!" They never

answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it

only makes a kind of whining, "eh-haa, eh-haa," and it speaks less and less often. It

is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of

corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of

festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see

it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be

there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that

their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the

health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even

the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend

wholly on this child's abominable misery.

 

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This is usually explained to children when they are between eight and twelve,

whenever they seem capable of understanding; and most of those who come to see

the child are young people, though often enough an adult comes, or comes back, to

see the child. No matter how well the matter has been explained to them, these

young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust,

which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage,

impotence, despite all the explanations. They would like to do something for the

child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the

sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would

be a good thing indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity

and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. 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.

The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the

child.

Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen

the child and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years.

But as time goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it

would not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food,

no doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has

been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to

respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched

without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement

to sit in. Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the

terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying

of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the

true source of the splendor of their lives.

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. It is because of the child that they are

so gentle with children. They know that if the wretched one were not there sniveling

in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful music as the young

riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of

summer.

Now do you believe in them? Are they not more credible? But there is one more

thing to tell, and this is quite incredible.

 

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At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home

to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman

much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out

into the street, and walk down the street 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.

Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the 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.