Reader Response

The Ones Who Choose to Stay

Kelsey Jennings

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, by Ursula K. Le Guin, tells the story of a fictional seaside city called Omelas. The short story takes place during Omelas “Festival of Summer”, full of horse races, music, smiling children and mothers with their babes. However, the seemingly happy Omelians have a dark local understanding. Their happiness depends on the neglect of one child, locked in a room under the floorboards of a local building. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas asks its readers to look inward at their own morals and ask themselves, is it better to live with that sacrifice or to walk away?

Le Guin starts her short story with an idyllic description of the utopic society that is Omelas. The way in which Le Guin describes Omelas in the first paragraph is full of rich detail; “their manes were braded with streams 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.” (Le Guin). Le Guin almost gives the reader a sales pitch on how happy the Omelians are, like she’s trying to convince us of their happiness rather than it being a true, undeniable happiness. That’s not to say she isn’t at all descriptive. She’s quite the opposite and without giving exact details, allows the reader to interpret and create their version of a utopia. Le Guin doesn’t invite, but makes her reader be an integral part of the story telling. “In “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” Le Guin invites the reader to co-create a utopian city and take responsibility for it, then also creates, at the insistence of her imagined reader, a graphically scapegoated victim–”(Adams). That is perhaps the trickery used on the reader. We create our own world, a happy one, one that we’d consider ideal, and then have to acknowledge the neglected child, just as the citizen of Omelas do. We’re forced to ask ourselves if we’d stay in the utopia or wonder outside of it into the unknown.

Just as the reader has created their own utopia, Le Guin asks the question “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No?” (Le Guin). This for me was a tonal shift in the story. I knew that whatever came after those questions would change the way I viewed Omelas. Le Guin asks these question as though it would be inconceivable to have a true utopia. This is when she introduces the neglected child and confirms the inconceivability of a true utopia; it comes with a sacrifice. Even this happy, loving, guilt free community, is flawed. When the child is introduced and it’s conditions described, my initial reaction was disgust, anger, just like the Omelians. It’s an almost jarring realization; all of our communities, cultures, and societies come with unimaginable sacrifices that we make every day. “”The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” appears to simply problematize the concept of utopia by foregrounding the scapegoat which we, the readers, require to be the foundation stone of culture.” (Adams).

The citizens of Omelas, though not simple, find happiness in simplicity. They don’t have churches, government, or armies because “The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial.” (Le Guin).  I think this line is important because it should be noted that there isn’t any enjoyment or fulfillment gained by the neglect of this child. I would argue that the citizens are horrified of the treatment and nature of the child. They “peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes.” (Le Guin). Even for the person that “kicks the child to make it stand” (Le Guin), I believe this to be difficult for them. There isn’t joy in this act, it’s just an understanding, a job. It’s horrific, but they understand that the neglect of this child is what makes their city what it is and the happiness of all other citizens depends on this kind of deplorable treatment.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas plays on the metaphor, “the sacrificial lamb”. There are many examples of the sacrificial lamb in mythology, theology, art, cinema, and politics, but I think the clearest example is that of Jesus. Jesus sacrifices himself and pays for our sins. “The death and resurrection of this one man is at the very heart of the Christian faith. For Christians it is through Jesus’s death that people’s broken relationship with God is restored. This is known as the Atonement.” (BBC – Religions – Christianity: Why Did Jesus Die?, n.d.-a). So, is the greater good more important than an induvial life? Paul Firenze suggests that the ones who stay, the ones who know of the boy and live with it every day may be morally superior to the ones that walk away. “These terms are difficult at first for everyone in Omelas, but most come to accept them through a combination of rationalization (the child could never really know happiness now) but also, I will argue, through a realization that the child’s suffering is actually a call to live a moral life, not simply for oneself, but for others. And I think ultimately this is the source of their moral strength, and therefore the source of their genuine happiness. But of course, not everyone accepts these terms, and not everyone stays. Some find the terms unacceptable, and they walk away from the city into the dark unknown beyond the Eighteen Peaks.” (Firenze).

Why do those that walk away do so? They don’t feel guilt, correct? It seems like a self-serving act. Just because they leave doesn’t mean the escape the knowledge of the child’s existence. “But, upon closer reading, we discover that this cannot be the case since, as Le Guin herself writes, the collective happiness determined by the child’s sacrifice is in part defined by a state of absolute guiltlessness: “One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt.” Thus, the question remains: From where does the impulse to depart come from, for those who walk away, if not from a desire to feel free from culpability?” (Keller Hirsch). I would argue that the ones that walk away are just as response for the child’s torment as the ones who stay.

Firenze also suggests that not only are the ones that walk complicit in the child’s treatment, but they walk away, eliminating even the possibility of potential change they could make. “Ultimately, my critique of the ones who walk away is that while they hold Omelas to be a place of unacceptable evil precisely because of the child’s situation, they have no plan for how to ameliorate the child’s suffering. This amelioration could only come, if it is ever to come, from within Omelas itself. Those who remain are at least in a position to eventually realize, and to make others realize, that the moral duty which ties them all to these admittedly grotesque “terms” is of their own making (and it is made by all of them, together).” (Firenze). I have to agree with Firenze and why I said them walking away is self-serving. Those that stay know the horror of the child’s torment but by staying, could make potential change and not allow another child to be the sacrificial lamb.

Do the ones that walk away make their own kind of sacrifice? Yes, I believe so. They walk into an unknown, imperfect world. But that’s where the irony lies. “Perhaps they might try to reconstruct a society based on all the good things in Omelas, only without the one obviously bad thing—the suffering child. Call it New Omelas. But in creating New Omelas they have not done away with the very thing they most reject—the child’s suffering. They have merely left it behind in the hopes of not contributing directly to its suffering. But it is unclear how this walking away absolves them of responsibility any more than those who remain.” (Firenze). Are they wondering into the world and forming a new Omelas? Or are they joining a new community? Yes, the treatment of the child is wrong, but there will be bad things and bad people in all other societies. Is there a society in which they can fit in or are they destined for isolation?

Though it’s an unimaginable decision, it’s not an uncommon one. We face the ideas of third world countries, starving children, trafficking, corruption, and countless other horrors every day. And yet we live with it. Le Guin perhaps amplifies the guilt we may feel for a child in that situation, but in the grand scheme of things, horrible treatments of people happen all the time. The only way to fix those horrors is to stay and create change.

Works Cited

Adams, Rebecca. “Narrative Voice and Unimaginability of the Utopian ‘Feminine’ in Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.’” Utopian Studies, vol. 2, no. 1/2, June 1991, p. 35. EBSCOhost,

BBC – Religions – Christianity: Why did Jesus die? (n.d.-b).

Firenze, Paul. “‘[T]hey, Like the Child, Are Not Free’: An Ethical Defense of the Ones Who Remain in Omelas.” Response, Nov. 2017, Accessed 13 Dec. 2022.

Keller Hirsch, Alexander. “Walking off the Edge of the World: Sacrifice, Chance, and Dazzling Dissolution in the Book of Job and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”.” MDPI, 9 Aug. 2016, Accessed 13 Dec. 2022.

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


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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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