I didn’t understand the story at first, but when I reread it a second time, I realized how powerful and thematic the story is. So I will describe a few important lessons you can pick from the story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.
It’s a short story by Ursula K Le Guin. It won the Hugo Award for best short story in 1974.
This is a summary, especially for those who have read it first and didn’t understand it. So let’s start with the plot.
The Summary of The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas
We have a town. The beauty of this city is outstanding. The author describes it as “Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairytale.” Perfect, excellent, blessed, whatever positive adjective you pick is great for describing this place. However, the only thing that makes the city become what it is is shocking and mysterious. A young boy of, say, thirteen is tied under an underground and maltreated. (The picture that comes to mind is that of a sick child locked somewhere, unfed, tortured, and dying every minute, even as he begged for help.) The problem is if this boy is taken out of the locked room and fed, the mighty, decorated, and the great city of Omelas will crumble.
Let’s start with a question: with the above summary, what would you do if you were a citizen of Omelas and saw this boy for the first time?
You don’t have to answer yet. Check out the key lessons before you answer them.
5 Lessons from the Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas
Fiction — literary fiction especially — has amazing value, but the lessons won’t jump at you the way it’s done with non-fiction. Instead, you need to reread them or understand the different reasons why you should read fiction.
That said, these are the important life lessons from the story of Omelas.
#1. No One has it all
Life in Omelas is prosperous, at least when you look at it from the surface. The city is beautiful if you walk around. It is an amazing city if you start from the entrance, see the procession from the city, and follow it to the Green Fields. These are beautiful sights until you get, according to the story, to the 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. You will find the feeble ten-year-old, and his pains and torture are the reason for all the beauty you have seen.
It is the same with most things. There are a dark side, the broken parts that make the beauty you see. It follows the popular saying that everyone has a skeleton in their cupboard. There is a dark side to every (most) beautiful thing.
You can apply this knowledge to building a business. Every big or standing successful business has a dark side, like a small stain on the sparking white robe. Likewise, humans have less attractive habits, backstories, or secrets. We are flawed, but that’s life.
Are the people of Omelas happy? I can’t say. The author says it’s hard to tell, and yet they look happy.
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
#2. There is a sacrifice for every beautiful thing
If a real estate agent shows you a fine house, you will ask, how much does this cost? It’s like asking what I will pay to get this place.
It’s the same thing with most things in life. I am writing this post while there are episodes of House of Dragon I should be watching. If you are starting a business, you will sacrifice money, time, and even relationships to get a successful story.
The feeble child is the sacrifice for the Omelas. As sad as I feel reading about how he’s treated, I still have to think of him as the price to be paid.
According to the story, you can’t treat him right and have beautiful Omelas. You can’t spend all your time on Netflix and build an online business.
#3. Life is unfair
I have so many questions. How did the boy get to the basement? Why is this child the one who has to bear the burden and pains described in this story?
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.
I keep thinking of how they chose this child who has to suffer in the basement. It reminds me of reading The Lottery, where all the town members decide to stone someone to death by playing a lottery. Of course, one person will be unlucky. But every citizen already knows this thing.
It’s the same thing sometimes in life. Someone is unlucky because of something they have no control over.
In Nigeria, crude oil is abundant. This story makes me imagine some family or person who has lost their lands or properties to the government because there is oil on their property. They should be compensated. Are they? As you enjoy the ride in your car or the engine in that industry continues to produce finished goods, remember that someone’s property is already damaged. Some people have their water and arable lands ruined because of oil spillage.
While living in Omela, some people have to come to terms with the truth about that child in the basement. They learn to live with it. Some didn’t give it much thought. Others choose to leave.
#4. The truth will often change you
When you set out to find out the truth about something, be ready for a reality that will shake you — often.
It’s like when I started writing online, and I thought I would get rich within a little time.
Many of the things I heard and read earlier were lies.
I’m still learning that and getting to know more than anyone who hasn’t taken the time to do the work and find the truth.
So when you set out to find the truth, be prepared for the unexpected.
#5. Everyone has a choice when they see something evil
At the end of the story, we read about people who made a difficult choice.
We read that every member of the city knows about this little boy in the basement. Many of the citizens accept that as a reality.
The saddest part of the book is reading about teenagers whose lives become hopelessly sad after they have seen the child in the basement. This is how the author describes it:
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 real 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.
In the end, we have few who choose differently. They are the ones who walk away from Omelas.
At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or a woman much older falls silent for a day or two, 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.The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas
Back to our question
What will you do when you see evil? This question is the main summary of the ones who walk away from Omelas. Will you choose to walk away or accept it as an important part of reality?
Omelas isn’t a real place, though. Ursula K. L. Guin says in an interview that the names came from the town name Salem — if you write it backward. She said she got the idea when she saw the name through a car mirror.
Image credit: istock
You can also see my review of the East of Eden book.