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(51,907 posts)
Fri Dec 30, 2011, 10:17 PM Dec 2011

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (Variations on a theme by William James) is a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin. It won the Hugo Award (in science fiction) for short stories in 1974.

In the story, Omelas is a utopian city of happiness and delight, whose inhabitants are smart and cultured. Everything about Omelas is pleasing, except for the secret of the city: the good fortune of Omelas requires that a single unfortunate child be kept in perpetual filth, darkness and misery, and that all her citizens should be told of this on coming of age.

After being exposed to the truth, most of the people of Omelas are initially shocked and disgusted, but are ultimately able to come to terms with the fact and resolve to live their lives in such a manner as to make the suffering of the unfortunate child worth it. However, some few of the citizens, young or old, silently walk away from the city, and no one knows where they go. The story ends with "The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas."

You can read the story in its entirety at http://harelbarzilai.org/words/omelas.txt or www.markaelrod.net/wp-content/uploads/2006/05/omelas.pdf The following is a brief excerpt—

In a 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. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is.

The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room, a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery.

Le Guin’s commentary—


"The central idea of this psychomyth, the scapegoat", writes Le Guin, "turns up in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, and several people have asked me, rather suspiciously, why I gave the credit to William James. The fact is, I haven't been able to re-read Dostoyevsky, much as I loved him, since I was twenty-five, and I'd simply forgotten he used the idea. But when I met it in James's The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life, it was with a shock of recognition."

The quote from William James is:

Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specific and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?

Le Guin hit upon the name of the town on seeing a road sign for Salem, Oregon, in a car mirror. “[… People ask me] ‘Where do you get your ideas from, Ms. Le Guin?’ From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?”

We all are living in Omelas right now

I’m sure that, given all the on-line debates over the 2010 health care bill, it’s pretty obvious where I’m going with this. According to the best of our American values, what we should have gotten was what citizens in every other part of the developed world take for granted—access to health care for all citizens, no exceptions. Apparently the best we can manage is eventual access to inadequate insurance for most of us, and what we got reflects our very worst values, chief of which is that your access to health care should depend mostly on how much money you have. Our brave new call to solidarity is “An injury to one is, after all, only an injury to one. Just ignore it and count your blessings.”

Yes, with more subsidized access to insurance, even inadequate insurance, fewer will die. Given that in nine years 35 million will still lack such access, instead of 46,000 dying a year, there will be 15,000 or fewer dying nine years from now. Kids with pre-existing conditions will no longer be denied coverage as of right now, but their parents will have to wait until 2014. Young adults 23-26 can remain on their parents’ plan, except for those whose parents don’t have insurance, can’t afford to add them, or kicked them out of the house years ago.

We have indeed made a start on emptying out our room full of non-persons, though we are nowhere near getting the number down to one as the fictional citizens of Omelas did. You see the big problem with the slowly emptying room, I hope. The lower the number of people still in it, the easier it will be for everybody else to ignore them permanently.

That has been our biggest political problem in trying to achieve universal health care all along—about 85% of us are never going to get really expensively sick. 5% of the population in every age group accounts for 50% of the health care expenses for that group. 15% account for 85%, and line of least resistance for the remaining mostly healthy 85% is to just ignore the unfortunates hidden in the basement. The healthy majority remains free to think that such insurance as they have is probably pretty good, an opinion about as well-informed as their opinions about how good their fire extinguishers are. After all, 46,000 dead is less than a tenth of a percent of the population; 350,000 bankruptcies amounts to only 1% of the population. According to the California Nurses study, 21% of claims are denied, which means that four out of five are not denied. If most people are just fine, it’s very easy for them to ignore the small minority who are not.

No, I am not happy at all about “reform,” and even the batshit crazy sociopathology of its right wing opponents doesn’t change that for me. Le Guin’s fictional solution of just leaving Omelas won’t work for me either, though it has for people like one of the former chairs of Health Care for All-WA. Dr. Bramhall used to be the only MD psychiatrist in Washington State who would see Medicaid patients. Her reimbursments had dwindled for years. She gave up her car and moved to an apartment on Pill Hill near her practice to save money and keep helping the desperate people she worked with. Eventually, she could not afford health care for herself, a very bad situation for someone of late middle age to be in. Luckily for her, New Zealand was very happy to pay for her health care in exchange for making her professional skills available to their population.

Permanently breaking down the door to the basement room is the only thing that will get everybody out of our Room of Non-Persons Who Don't Deserve Health Care. I truly believe that most of the people cheering in the streets for the release of some fully intend to go back down at some time or another for the rest. But, based on quite a bit of past history, if that were really likely to happen Le Guin would never have felt the need to write her story at all.
24 replies = new reply since forum marked as read
Highlight: NoneDon't highlight anything 5 newestHighlight 5 most recent replies
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (Original Post) eridani Dec 2011 OP
k&r toddaa Dec 2011 #1
K & R Cerridwen Dec 2011 #2
k&r Starry Messenger Dec 2011 #3
The lower the number of people still in it, the easier it will be for everybody else to ignore them Luminous Animal Dec 2011 #4
Perfectly stated suffragette Dec 2011 #5
Eloquently stated. LiberalAndProud Dec 2011 #6
I can only add my k&r in hopes this thread becomes one of DU's blockbusters with hundreds of K&Rs riderinthestorm Dec 2011 #7
I'm blushing! eridani Dec 2011 #8
K&R from someone with no access to health insurance.. Fumesucker Dec 2011 #9
Morning kick. Cerridwen Dec 2011 #10
I have read that. I am life by carob Dec 2011 #11
That is NOT going to get us universal health care n/t eridani Dec 2011 #19
Epsilon? DeathToTheOil Dec 2011 #12
Yes. All my on-line handles are astronomical terms eridani Dec 2011 #21
Kick. It's even better the 2nd time around. Luminous Animal Dec 2011 #13
I recently re-read the Omelas story... CoffeeCat Dec 2011 #14
+1 Luminous Animal Dec 2011 #16
Oh, and thank you Eridani... CoffeeCat Dec 2011 #15
I was very moved by the story when it first came out eridani Dec 2011 #20
Wow... K & R !!! - And THANK YOU !!! WillyT Dec 2011 #17
K+R nt Survivoreesta Dec 2011 #18
A weekday, workday, non-vacation day kick! nt riderinthestorm Jan 2012 #22
And another. Luminous Animal Jan 2012 #23
Hey eridani... Here's Another Story For YOU... WillyT Jan 2012 #24

Luminous Animal

(27,310 posts)
4. The lower the number of people still in it, the easier it will be for everybody else to ignore them
Fri Dec 30, 2011, 10:42 PM
Dec 2011

Thank you, eridani.



(23,272 posts)
7. I can only add my k&r in hopes this thread becomes one of DU's blockbusters with hundreds of K&Rs
Fri Dec 30, 2011, 11:16 PM
Dec 2011

and goes on for days so hundreds, maybe thousands read it.

Powerful, perfect. Thanks for posting. I have no other words to add to a most excellent OP


(13,260 posts)
10. Morning kick.
Sat Dec 31, 2011, 11:58 AM
Dec 2011

As the OP and Luminous Animal highlighted;

The lower the number of people still in it, the easier it will be for everybody else to ignore them permanently.


(51,907 posts)
21. Yes. All my on-line handles are astronomical terms
Sat Dec 31, 2011, 09:23 PM
Dec 2011

Works for passwords as well if sprinkled with random caps, numbers and non-alphanumeric characters.


(24,411 posts)
14. I recently re-read the Omelas story...
Sat Dec 31, 2011, 02:41 PM
Dec 2011

...and I find that it parallels so many situations in our society.

We are being conditioned to "look the other way" and to accept that some will
suffer in our society--and to DO NOTHING.

I agree that this applies to our healthcare system.

I also find similarities with most of the big corporations that are taking our planet down.
They are willing to harm the environment *just a bit* in order to make a profit--that temporarily makes them happy. What they don't realize is that when they allow suffering--for personal gain--it taints their cause and their society--and ultimately will lead to failure.

Look at what the banks have done. They thought they could make trillions off of risky mortgages and selling those risky mortgages rolled up into bunk securities. Worked so well for them, for a while. Until they nearly brought down our entire economy. To the banks--those who suffer are just a group of little kids in a basement. What do they care? They've got theirs. Look at the Penn State sex abuse situation. Penn State's entire top brass--and others--decided that it was ok for some children to suffer--so the football program could thrive. The entire Penn State community was the Omelas--trying so hard to preserve some utopia, that was really a shameful, dishonest, sickening cabala--because they sacrificed innocent children for self interest.

A paradigm like this will always fail--because the suffering takes over. The suffering grows with the victims--and it also eats away at those who look away.

The problem with our society is that we are conditioned to be in denial. Heavy denial is what enables serial killers and other perpetrators to harm people and feel nothing. We are all being trained to be psychopaths. To look the other way. To know that there are people suffering "in the basement" but to shrug it off as the cost of running a society.

We will rot as a species behaving and thinking like this. It's a lie that "one child must suffer in the basement" for all of us to thrive. If only the Omelas (or everyone on our planet) would realize that we are all worse people for allowing the suffering of anyone--in order to protect our own interests.

The most courageous--are the ones who stand up, rescue the child from the basement and demonstrate to everyone that watching others suffer and knowing that they suffer--hurts everyone--and can never lead to happiness, peace and fulfillment. No matter how many possessions or how much good fortune one has.


(24,411 posts)
15. Oh, and thank you Eridani...
Sat Dec 31, 2011, 02:47 PM
Dec 2011

...for a most spectacular post.

You took the time to explain the Omelas and how the story relates to our society--and you've no doubt sparked conversation--and much thought!

I appreciate that you posted this and I also like your insight.

Our entire world would be so much more enlightened--if people read The Omelas and understood what it meant.

So thank you--for spreading the word. No doubt, you must have been affected by the Omelas, correct?

Spectacular post!


(51,907 posts)
20. I was very moved by the story when it first came out
Sat Dec 31, 2011, 09:17 PM
Dec 2011

As some of the other comments explain, the application is far broader than just health care. James, Dostoyevsky and LeGuin have laid out one of our species' most serious moral dilemmas.

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