New Criticism

The Beauty of Blood Diamonds

By Sydney Bergeson

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a story about a city where people are truly happy and joyous, and peace reigns. This happiness, however, hinges upon the misery of the child, and it’s citizens have vastly different reactions to it. They believe it will not be as horrible as they have been told. They understand it is for the good of the community, and some of them even understand why, and some still do not, and refuse to accept it. There is no guilt in Omelas, because the guilt leaves with the ones who walk away. The opposing reactions to a beautiful and happy community that can only exists at the expense of an innocent child, show the tension between the people who choose to stay or leave, and how ultimately neither option solves the problem of helping the child.

When the citizens of Omelas first see the child, it is nothing like what they expect. They learn about the child at a young age, and see its condition somewhere in adolescence. They have been told it is ugly, they have been told it is horrible, but they don’t understand until they actually see the child. They expect to be able to handle it. When they see the child, “They feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to” (Le Guin, 4). This pains the citizens, and they wonder about what to do to help the child and how to fix it, even “brood[ing] over it for weeks or years” (Le Guin, 4). This is in opposition to the older, more experienced Omelians, who have come to the conclusions that it’s for the best. The child’s situation could vastly improve, but it could never experience true joy, and doing so would doom the city. They expect it to not be that bad, but seeing misery of this scale is surprising to them. Some of them do not even understand why the child is there.

The child is a symbol, specifically of a scapegoat. The earliest record of a scapegoat comes from the Bible. Historically, a goat was ‘given’ all the sins of the community and sent out into the desert to be received by a demon. It was believed that by doing so the community would rid themselves of the sin, and make it better for everyone (except the goat) (De Verteuil). The child, an innocent, has committed no crime, yet still must bear the cross for the good of the community. The scapegoat is also expelled from the community, much like the child being locked in what amounts to a broom closet.

The goal of this community, of this town, is to maximize happiness for the most people. This is a political philosophy known as utilitarianism, where the guiding principle is happiness. Jeremy Bentham, founder of modern utilitarianism said that the purpose is to “augment the happiness of the community…greater than any [tendency] it has to diminish it” (Archie and Archie). The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and any action that maximizes happiness is considered good and moral. It follows, then, that Omelas would consider the child to be a just sacrifice, as there are scores of children who are happy, and whose needs are being met. Utilitarianism also deals with the complexity of happiness, and whether it is fleeting or lasting. Factors such as intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity or proximity to home, fecundity or ability to be reproduced, the purity and extent of happiness are taken into account. Omelas accomplishes these goals. The speaker proclaims of a community with “mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched” (Le Guin, 2). These are not naive people, blind to the horrors of the world around them, but are lively and complex people. An entire community is thriving, simply for the sacrifice of one child. In straight number terms, which is one of the principles of utilitarianism, Omelas has accomplished this goal. In opposition to the happy people of Omelas, however, is the child.

The child is the price that Omelas must pay in order to exist. In order to have adults that are happy and joyous, and beautiful children with sticky faces (Le Guin, 2-3), the child must wallow in misery. Does the happiness of a community justify the pain of one person? Do generations of peace and resources abound justify it?

The ones who stay seem to think so.

In Omelas, not everyone is content to accept the torture of the child. Le Guin offers a second option, the ones who walk away from Omelas. They walk straight out of Omelas, to an unknown place (Le Guin, 5). It seems as though it does not matter where they go, as long as they are no longer in Omelas, and no longer participate in what they see as a blood diamond. Beautiful, glittering brilliance, at a terrible, terrible cost. They simply must leave. The narrator mentions that “One thing I know there is none of Omelas is guilt” (Le Guin, 2). There is no guilt because the townspeople accept the child, and understand it is the reason for their happiness. It is not “vapid, irresponsible happiness”, and it “is because of the child that they are so gentle with children” (Le Guin, 4). The townspeople are not willfully ignorant, or seek to forget, but recognize the child and ensure the sacrifice will not be in vain. This is why there is no guilt in the town, and the other reason is the ones who do feel guilty, leave. They walk away, and refuse to participate in the system.

The irony, however, is that in leaving the city they do nothing to help the child. In an effort to stop the cycle, they only absolve themselves of guilt. The ones who walk away resolve not to benefit off of misery, and they accomplish that goal, but it changes nothing for the child. Doing so would even destroy the happiness of the entire community (Le Guin, 4). The citizens only see the child because it is a custom of their society, and it’s “clear that those who come to look at the tormented child do so for their own purposes, and never in response to its needs or wants, which simply don’t exist for them” (Langbauer). Leaving seems to be an ultimately futile action, as the child’s situation never changes. This is the unifying idea of the story, that resolving yourself of guilt does not resolve the guilty action.

The one thing leaving does do, however, is signal to others that something isn’t right. These people grew up in the same community, and walked away with vastly different reactions. Perhaps like the older men and women who walk away, it can encourage others to leave, to seek out new ways to live.

Works Cited

Archie, Lee, and John G. Archie. “Chapter 23. ‘Happiness Is the Greatest Good’ by Jeremy Bentham.” Reading for Philosophical Inquiry: A Brief Introduction to Philosophical Thinking, edited by John G Archie, 21st ed., GNU Free Documentation Licence, pp. 251–265.

De Verteuil, Roger. “The Scapegoat Archetype.” Journal of Religion and Health, vol. 5, no. 3, 1966, pp. 209–25. JSTOR, Accessed 22 Dec. 2022.

Langbauer, Laurie. “Ethics and Theory: Suffering Children in Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Le Guin.” ELH, vol. 75, no. 1, 2008, pp. 89–108. JSTOR, Accessed 6 Dec. 2022.



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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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