The story begins with a narrator’s description of the Festival of Summer in the city of Omelas, a town by the sea. The atmosphere is festive and reverent, with bells ringing out and the boats in the harbor displaying hung flags. The people of Omelas parade happily through the streets of the beautiful city as swallows fly overhead. There is music, and in some parts of the city, people are dancing. Women carry their babies and children run about in the sunshine. Everyone is walking toward the Green Fields, where young boys and girls, all nude, ready horses for a race. The horses are excited, and they are decorated with colorful ribbons and very little riding gear. The clear air reveals the mountains around Omelas, capped with snow. A light breeze flutters the banners around the racecourse as the happy city crowd approaches.

The narrator pauses here and begins to reflect upon the description of the Festival they have just given. The narrator wonders how to describe the joy and the citizens of Omelas, and notes that the description of the Festival might lead to certain assumptions. For example, one might assume the people have a king, but they do not. Nor do they have many, if any, laws. One might also assume that because the people of Omelas are happy, they are simple. The narrator laments this assumption as rooted in the sense many people have that happiness is always bland, and that only evil can be complex. But if we praise evil as interesting, this only makes it harder to celebrate joy. It is therefore difficult to describe the people of Omelas because, despite their happiness, they are not simple people. Just because they do not have any of the trappings of our modern world, such as the stock market or the nuclear bomb, does not make them less complex than us. The narrator then wishes they could convince the reader of the complexity of the people of Omelas and admits that their description won’t satisfy everyone’s doubts. 

The narrator then invites the reader to join them in imagining the details of Omelas, asking a series of questions and proposing a variety of possibilities. What kind of technology does Omelas have? The narrator answers that question by suggesting there probably would not be flying cars or helicopters because these things are not necessary for happiness, and the people of Omelas are happy. Instead, the narrator suggests Omelas probably has other great technologies, like floating light sources and a cure for the common cold. Then the narrator seems to backtrack, saying there could be all these things, or none of them, and it doesn’t really matter.

Next, the narrator speculates that people from other towns in the region have been arriving by train in Omelas over the past few days to join the Festival. The narrator also supposes that the train station is the grandest building in town and that there is an amazing Farmers’ Market. After this last bit of speculation, the narrator worries that the reader will think Omelas is too goody-goody and invites the reader to add an orgy into the mix. The narrator evokes the idea of beautiful naked people wandering around offering sex to anyone who wants it, even during the Summer Festival parade. But the narrator warns this can’t be a religious kind of orgy with naked priests; that there can be religion, but no clergy because there is no guilt in Omelas. The narrator then asks what else there should be in the city. They suggest drugs, but nothing too destructive, and imagines a drug called drooz, which brings ecstasy and pleasure but is not addictive. The narrator asks again what else there should be, and suggests there exists in Omelas the appreciation of bravery and a sense of triumph, but without war or soldiers. The people of Omelas, the narrator suggests, celebrate life, not death, and feel so contented that they rarely need to use drooz after all.

The narrator then returns to describing the Festival of Summer procession, which has come to the Green Fields. People have begun to eat delicious food and the race is about to begin. A woman passes out flowers and there is a young boy sitting on the edge of the crowd playing a wooden flute. People stop to listen, and when the boy finishes his song and lowers his flute, the race begins to officially kick off the Festival of Summer.

Here the narrator again pauses their description. This time the narrator asks the reader if they believe the story so far and whether they accept the happiness of the people of Omelas. Then they say they will describe one more thing, to make it all more believable. The narrator goes on to describe a basement in one of the buildings or homes in Omelas. In this basement, there is a small, damp room with a dirt floor, about the size of a closet. Inside the room, which is behind a locked door, there are a couple of dirty mops, a bucket, and a young child. The child is ten years old, but looks younger, and was either born with an intellectual disability or else has become disabled because of neglect. The child is scared and completely miserable. It is never allowed to leave the room. Occasionally, someone opens the door and kicks the child to make it stand up. The person fills the food bowl halfway with corn meal and grease, fills the water jug, and leaves. The child can remember what the outside world looks like and begs and pleads to be let out. The child is naked and covered in sores, and it wails at night in its misery.

The people of Omelas all know about the child in the basement. They all understand that everything good about Omelas, from their abundance of food to the good weather, depends upon the suffering of the child. They all understand this because when children are between the ages of eight and twelve, they are brought to see the child, and this tradeoff is explained to them. During this experience, the children of Omelas are disgusted. They want to help, but they are told they can’t. If anyone helps the child by clothing, feeding, or otherwise caring for it, then the perfect happiness of Omelas and its abundance would die. Therefore, no one may even speak kindly to the child.

Though at first the children who are shown the suffering child are deeply upset, after a time they begin to justify the suffering, telling themselves that freedom probably wouldn’t help the child. They tell themselves that the child has known suffering for so long that it wouldn’t know how to feel joy anymore and would miss the squalor of the locked room. So the children who are shown the suffering child come to accept this as a fact of life in Omelas. In fact, once they get over their anger and sadness, they begin to attribute their happiness to the knowledge of the suffering child. Without this knowledge, they would not appreciate life as much as they do. Their music, their architecture, and even their freedom would not be as good as it is if the suffering child did not exist.

At this point, the narrator pauses for a final time to ask the reader whether what they have just learned does not make Omelas more believable. The narrator then shares one other bit of information. Every now and again, a person who is shown the suffering child breaks the usual pattern. They do not become angry and then later calm down and come to accept it. Instead, these people leave Omelas altogether. They walk down the street alone, and out the gates. They walk across the fields and into the mountains, and they never come back. The narrator admits they do not know where these people go, but the ones who walk away from Omelas seem to know exactly where they are going.