A City Without Heroes

Tessa Winegar

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, it is clear that some form of psychological repression or desensitization must be taking place for thecitizens of Omelas to live so happily with their awareness of the tortured child in a cellar deep below the city. The purely utilitarian treatment of this child pulls into question the lengths a society might actually go to, and why, in order to secure happiness and well-being for the majority. As such, this piece is a story well-suited for a psychological critique. It is known that the writings of the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung had a strong impact on Ursula Le Guin’s work. Therefore, the fictional society of Omelas can be viewed as an allegory for Carl Jung’s theory of the human psyche (specifically the ego, the persona, and the shadow) and his theory of individuation. Through this lens, a psychological evaluation of the people of Omelas serves to uncover perhaps the deepest problem within the society.

According to Jung, the ego is “how one sees oneself, along with the conscious and unconscious feelings that accompany that view” (qtd in Krapp 208). So, in a Jungian analysis of the city of Omelas, it would appear that the ego is comparable to the city of Omelas itself. Just as the ego encompasses the conscious and the unconscious, the city of Omelas encompasses all its inhabitants, all the joy and happiness experienced, and of course, the indomitable suffering of the child. As Jung posits, “some contents [of the psyche] are reflected by the ego and held in consciousness, where they can be further examined and manipulated, while other psychic contents lie outside of consciousness either temporarily and permanently” (Stein 25). The content held in consciousness (or awareness) in Omelas is simply the perfection of the city, the joys of everyday life. That which lies outside consciousness, permanently, is the child in the cellar. Its suffering must be constantly ignored for the citizens of Omelas to live the way that they do.

As such, if the ego represents the city itself, then the persona is the public face of Omelas. Omelas’ persona appears to be the “boundless and generous contentment” that every inhabitant experiences (Le Guin 2). The festivals, the music, the dancing. But, in Jungian theory, the persona is also “the set of traits and characteristics in conformity with social expectations that the individual shows to others” (Krapp 208-209). These social expectations arise from sources such as “acculturation, education, and adaptation to our physical and social environments” (Stein 101). So, in Omelas, in which every inhabitant is introduced to the harsh reality of the child’s endless torment early on, the social expectation is to “perceive the terrible justice of reality” (Le Guin 4) and to move on. Each citizen is expected to accept that the suffering of the child is justified because it provides the rest of them with unending happiness. To their credit, the citizens of Omelas do not accept this “terrible justice” in stride. They “go home in tears,” or “brood over it for weeks and years” (Le Guin 4). But still, they come to accept it. They rationalize it, and they become desensitized to the child’s cries of “Please let me out. I will be good!” (Le Guin 3). As Shosanna Knapp explains, “In Omelas…the nobler thing [leaving Omelas] does not taste better; if it did, Omelas would be a ghost town” (Knapp 76). So, while the public face of the city is the laughter and the joy, it is also the injured, naked child in the dark that every person is aware of.

In addition, the shadow is another integral piece of Jung’s theory of the human psyche. Stein explains that, “in adapting to and coping with the world, the ego, quite unwittingly, employs the shadow to carry out unsavory operations that it could not perform without falling into a moral conflict” (Stein 99). In viewing the society of Omelas as one unified entity, it could be logically concluded upon first assessment that the child in the cellar is the shadow of Omelas. Certainly, its imprisonment seems to be an “unsavory operation.” However, the child’s situation is public knowledge, and as explained before, even part of the city’s persona. So, what is the shadow of Omelas? In Jungian theory, the shadow contains the unconscious aspects of the psyche that have been repressed–containing features of the psyche’s nature that are “contrary to the customs and moral conventions of society” (Stein 99). If those who stay in Omelas are obeying the social customs, then those who leave are not. Therefore, it can be concluded that the shadow of Omelas is those who walk away from the city. The shadow is what the persona will not allow. If the persona (Omelas) expects all to accept the suffering of the child, then the shadow (those who walk away) does the opposite.

Finally, Jung regarded his process of individuation as the core of his psychology. He used the term ‘individuation’ to reference psychological development, or “becoming a unified but also unique personality” (Stein 155). In comparison to those who stay in Omelas, the ones who walk away can be considered unique. Very few walked away. Similarly, Jung did not regard the process of individuation as being possible for all people. One of the important factors of individuation is that it requires one “to sacrifice some of the worldly gains that have been achieved,” and that it has a “definite quality of detachment and isolation from other people” (Krapp 213). Those who leave Omelas give up their home, their relationships, their wealth–everything they have–as a form of dissent to the treatment of the child in the cellar. They walk to a place “even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness” (Le Guin 5). And thus, they could be considered to have achieved some form of individuation, or at least been on the path to it.

And here arises perhaps the greatest problem for Omelas, as revealed by Jung’s theory of the psyche. Those who leave at first appear to be the heroes of the story, the ones who deny the atrocious treatment of an innocent youth. But are they really? They leave, but for what reason? Could it not be their own feelings of guilt? As Le Guin states, “One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt” (Le Guin 2). Surely this is because all those who experience guilt are those who walk away. Each moment of laughter and goodness in the city seems a slap in the face to those who recognize its cost. But this walking away achieves no true purpose, not in any significant way. Not for the child, nor for the city. It may be nobler, it may be better than staying, but it is still a form of self-preservation, of ignorance. It is a “protective and self-serving” activity (Stein 99). As stated by Shosanna Knapp, “the use of the subconscious…does not absolve one from accountability” (Knapp 79). The child still goes on in anguish and agony, and the city of Omelas still thrives at a wretched cost. Is this not the true problem? That even though some may walk away from Omelas, even though they have found a way to dissent, the poor child still suffers. The knowing abuse of this innocent child fuels the joys of the city, and that fact alone makes the entire city wretched.

As Stein states, “Persona and shadow are usually more or less exact opposites of one another, and yet they are as close as twins” (Stein 101). In Omelas, those who stay and those who leave seem to be in direct ideological opposition. However, both parties are still indifferent to the suffering of the child. No one in either party moves to alleviate its pain. And thus, they are as close as twins, both complicit in this atrocity.

Ursula Le Guin’s fictional city of Omelas provides the reader with a tragic and thought-provoking narrative that can be viewed in many different ways. And even within psychological criticism, many theories could have been applied to the city and its people. However, in applying Carl Jung’s theory of the human psyche and his theory of individuation, the reader can come to better understand the inhabitants of Omelas. The persona: the public face of the city; the shadow: those who choose to leave. But what is perhaps most impactful are the implications of what leaving Omelas truly means. Are those who walk away morally superior to those who stay? Does the indifference of all level the moral ‘playing field?’ Or, does it even matter? Regardless of the good intentions of the citizens of Omelas–who state that their happiness is not “irresponsible” and that they recognize the cost of their perfect society–when the child suffers in continual torment, does it really matter who is more morally developed, or who stayed or left? What can truly matter in comparison to such an injustice?

Works Cited

Knapp, Shoshana. “The Morality of Creation: Dostoevsky and William James in Le Guin’s ‘Omelas.’” The Journal of Narrative Technique, vol. 15, no. 1, 1985, pp. 75–81. JSTOR, Accessed 10 Dec. 2022.

Krapp, Kristine M. Psychologists and Their Theories. Gale, 2004, Accessed 5 December 2022.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

Stein, Murray. Jung’s Map of the Soul. Open Court, 1988, Accessed 5 December 2022.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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.

Share This Book