In the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula LeGuin (n. d. ), the narrator appears to be telling a story of child abuse from a third-person point of view. In this paper, I will attempt to expose the narrator, not only as a first-person witness, but as a former citizen of Omelas, and as one of the lonely few who has walked away (pdf). LeGuin doesn’t specify the gender of our narrator or the child in this story. I believe she intentionally left these decisions to the reader, allowing for a closer emotional attachment to either or both characters.
For the purposes of this paper, from this point on, the narrator will be referred to as “she”, LeGuin as LeGuin, and the child’s gender will remain in your hands. “With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring”(LeGuin, n. d. , para. 1) so do they set forth a glorious description of Omelas, its citizens, and its annual summer festival. I feel the opening paragraph of the story is a vivid recollection of time once beloved by our narrator at a young age, a description of how she saw the world and experienced the festival as a child living in Omelas.
Details are given in the way she identifies the landscape and geographic surroundings come across as a reconstructed memory, for example: “Far off to the north and west the mountains stood up half encircling Omelas on her bay… the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire… ”(LeGuin, n. d. , para. 1), or “The great water-meadow called the Green Fields… ”(LeGuin, n. d. , para. 1). These sentences sound like they’re being reflected upon by an eye witness. “Even here, the voice we are hearing is not LeGuin, but a character, the ‘pretended author’”(Baker, 2001, para. ). Not only are these places verbally painted for you to see in your mind, but a sneaky use of capitalization by LeGuin could be showing the reader that the narrator knows these places personally. A mountain range can have WHO WALKS 3 eighteen peaks, a meadow can be green, yet these are capitalized, and therefore proper nouns.
“Eighteen Peaks” and “Green Fields” are names of specific places within and around Omelas. Another indication that the narrator lived in Omelas during these summer festivals was “a cheerful faint sweetness of the air… (LeGuin, n. d. , para. 1) was present. The way something tastes or smells is determined by an individual’s senses, we must be present to identify them, we cannot see sweetness from a distance. Furthermore, in a description of the horse races, it’s said that “the horse being the only animal who has adopted our ceremonies as his own”(LeGuin, n. d. , para. 1). “Our ceremonies”, clearly indicates she was taking part in them. Why is the narrator is telling this story from the perspective of an onlooker, instead of someone who participated in the festivities?
Shame, she is ashamed of her home town, ashamed that she enjoyed her childhood. Between the first and third paragraphs she exclaims “Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How to describe the citizens of Omelas”(LeGuin, n. d. , para. 2). This is where I get the feeling that a little girl was told of, and exposed to a naked, feeble-minded, nine-year-old human being, held captive in its own filth, strictly for the benefit of Omelas and it’s people. (LeGuin, n. d. , para. 10) “Usually explained to children when they are between eight and twelve, whenever they seem capable of understanding”(LeGuin, n. . , para. 10), I don’t think our narrator was capable of understanding yet, or ready to have her innocence taken from her. This was made clear earlier in the story when she said “their children were, in fact, happy”(LeGuin, n. d. , para. 3), this seems to be implying that their parents were, in fact, unhappy. “But we do not say the words of cheer much any more. All smiles have become archaic”(LeGuin, n. d. , para. 3). These sentences were used in the third paragraph, WHO WALKS 4 before the child was exposed to us, the readers.
The narrator’s descriptive vivid memories of playful, happy childhood, clearly shift into a regurgitation of excuses given to her by all the adults who knew of, and justified the child’s misery. Notice the use of the word “we” in the sentence “But we do not say the words of cheer much anymore”(LeGuin, n. d. , para. 3), not unlike “our ceremonies”, this is the last claim of residency by our narrator. Susan Jaye Dauer (2004) states, “Reliability is a problem for LeGuin’s narrator in this story… The narrator says ‘I think’ and ‘I think there ought to be,’ rather than telling the reader what is”(para. 10).
I disagree with Dauer’s conclusions. “The narrator… quite often directly addresses the reader, inviting them to think of descriptions of Omelas”(Palmer, 2009, para. 2), I feel a lack of detail in portions of the story were intentional by LeGuin. If my thesis is correct, the narrator was exposed to the child in the closet between the ages of eight and twelve, therefore walking away from Omelas as a ten to fourteen-year-old. This is assumed from, “They may brood over it for weeks or years”(LeGuin, n. d. , para. 12), she must have remained in Omelas long enough to see others walk away, and yet, was still a child herself when she did.
Therefore she may not know, nor would be expected to recall specifics that don’t matter to children, like laws, explaining her indifference. Assuming she is telling us this story as an adult, we can identify the events in her life that are remembered fondly, along with the events that were traumatizing by the accuracy in which they were described, all other incidentals fade with time. Kids remember extremes, whether they be happy or sad occasions, scary moments, or injuries and suffering inflicted upon themselves or others.
These memories tend to burn themselves into our minds, this is the reason for the narrator’s explicit details about the festivals she loved “ Their manes were braided with streamers of silver, gold, and green”(LeGuin, n. d. , WHO WALKS 5 para. 1), the nonchalant approach in describing the happiness of the utopian society “Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids… certainly I cannot suit you all”(LeGuin, n. d. , para. 3), only to return to the chillingly accurate accounts of the child in the closet “Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually”( LeGuin, n. . , para. 8). That is why I disagree with Dauer.
The last paragraph of the story fortifies my final thesis, and details the occasional defector from Omelas “But there is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible”(Le Guin, n. d. , para. 13), she is obviously proud of herself for being one of the few citizens with enough scruples to walk away. This was a life-changing decision she was forced to make on her own, as anyone who would’ve appreciated, and or sympathized with her need to leave the city, would’ve already done so. This is why when they leave, they do so alone.
It’s as if our narrator describes her experience leaving the city “through the beautiful gates… across the farmlands… between the houses with yellow-lit windows”(Le Guin, n. d. , para. 14). Bruce E. Brandt (2003) says “An appeal to the greater good… is simply hypocritical: the citizens of Omelas have chosen to allow the child’s suffering solely because they like the benefits”(55). Any individual leaving Omelas is virtually giving the remaining citizens a moral slap in the face. This is what she’s doing, why she’s proud of it, and why I think she is telling the story the way she is.
The progression of the story feels like a punch in the gut, sucking you into the euphoria of Omelas, only to horrify you with the disgraceful inactions of its people, eventually letting you off the hook with a bit of relief at the end. The turbulent pattern influences you to make the same decision she did, yet it feels like your own. WHO WALKS 6 I hope the observations from the story support my thesis statement effectively and show that our narrator once lived in Omelas, witnessed the child in the closet, and was one of the few who walked away.