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The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is a story of society's debt to the individual—how a person must choose between a “civilized” society and one that condones torture. If making one person suffer on the part of many is wrong, is it wrong to send a soldier off to war when he does not wish to go? When must one draw the line between holding onto our culture and stepping away from it all, in order to remove oneself from the actions of a society?
Ursula K. Le Guin's story features a beautiful city where everyone is happy. Even so, it is not a utopian society. In order for everyone else to live as they are, joyfully, one single child has been made a scapegoat, and endures a horrible existence locked in a tiny room. This child is never given a kind word, and is abused and looked down on. The people of Omelas are aware of this, and believe, rightly or wrongly, that every bit of happiness in their lives depends solely on the child's misery. They are able to justify the child's suffering and, in spite of it, or perhaps because of it, be happy, though it is terrible, conscientious happiness. However, there are those who refuse to live in such a society, and these are the ones who walk away from Omelas. Their choice personifies each individual's choice between living in the “light” of a society built on immoral ideals or rejecting that society in favor of uncertainty, a lack of social order, and “darkness.”
Omelas, as seen from the outside, is a perfect world, but beneath the unspoiled exterior is a world built on the misery of a single person. Though the people of the city can justify the pain inflicted on the child, such a thing does not make it right. Must one suffer so all can be happy? Is torture “justified” if it will save lives? Most of all, is one life worth any more than another? It is the same as saying that we can trade one person for another, simply because one person is seen as lesser in the eyes of the world.
One of the most poignant scenes in the story comes when the author describes how, when they are thirteen or fourteen, the young people of Omelas are taken to see the child in its prison. Some of them go home to weep or rage, but in the end, they realize 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.” The people of Omelas choose to live as they had been before their realization, but they are almost obligated to be happy after witnessing the wretchedness of the child. Is such a duty-bound joy true happiness? The ones who walk away from Omelas, even though they leave their perfect city for the unknown, outside world, are the ones who will eventually find true happiness. No genuine gladness can be built on a base of corruption, no matter how small or large. Suffering and torture will never create an ideal society.
Every person should be responsible for those around them. Society is built upon the collective worth of all individuals, and so owes a debt to every person within its margins. To torture one for the benefit of others is to start the fall of the civilized world. There is no way that a civilization can survive if based on the idea that some must suffer in order for others to live good, fulfilling lives. Such a society will soon crumble, and those who walked away will be left to begin anew.




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