Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Knowledge As a Rite of Passage

Le Guin’s tale is an allegory, and the ritual in Omelas whereby children of a certain age are brought to view the suffering child is its most potent theme. In Omelas, children are taken to see the suffering child when they are between eight and twelve years old. This age range is significant because it is the time in all children’s lives when they begin to look after themselves and take responsibility for their own actions. Taking responsibility means knowing the consequences of one’s actions. Therefore, once the children of Omelas are aware that their society depends upon the child’s suffering and decide to allow that suffering to continue, they officially join in the collective responsibility for their society’s success. Thus, the ritual represents knowledge as a rite of passage to adulthood.

Though Le Guin’s allegory calls to mind the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Le Guin turns the idea on its head. Rather than knowledge of sin or sexuality or human suffering as a reason to be cast out of utopia, this knowledge actually upholds utopia and keeps people in. The narrator explains at length that knowledge of the child’s suffering is the source of all happiness in Omelas, partly because such suffering can be used as a basis of comparison. There can be no true pleasure without the knowledge of pain, no feeling of contentment without the experience of deprivation, and no mercy without the threat of cruelty. Therefore, to become an adult in Omelas, one must be given the knowledge of suffering so that they can truly understand and appreciate their happiness. But the rite of passage in Omelas goes even further when children are told that they must not help the child, and that if they do, society will fail. Le Guin suggests here that knowledge inevitably creates a responsibility for what one chooses to do with it, and that this dynamic is the essence of adulthood.

The Symbiotic Relationship between Beauty and Pain

Through the narrator’s description of a utopia founded upon a child’s unimaginable suffering, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” explores the symbiotic relationship between beauty and pain. The narrator first hints at this relationship when they lament people’s tendency to assume happiness is boring and only evil is interesting. The narrator mentions artists as the worst offenders who refuse to admit that evil is often boring. Here the narrator is invoking the trope that an artist must suffer in order to create really good art. The narratives that often surround a culture’s greatest artists underscore this point: Van Gogh’s paintings depict the artist’s emotional turbulence, Coltrane’s solos express his angst and disillusionment, and Plath’s poetry reflects the pain of her deep depression. The supposition is that these artists were only able to create profound works because of their profound pain.

While the narrator at first rejects this trope as false, they perceive that the reader will assume it is true. The narrator frets that Omelas will not be believable to the reader because it is simply too perfect. To solve this problem, the narrator introduces the information about the suffering child. This indeed serves the purpose of making Omelas more believable. However, it ironically proposes exactly the idea the narrator initially rejects: that beauty and happiness rely upon the existence of pain and deprivation. In fact, the narrator goes on to directly state that it is precisely because of the child’s suffering, and the citizens’ knowledge of it, that the citizens of Omelas perceive their music and architecture to be so beautiful. Le Guin’s proposal here is twofold. Not only is beauty relative and only able to exist in a world that also includes pain, but also beauty relies upon pain and suffering, and is created as a response to it.

The Hazards of Moral Compromise

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” allegorizes and reveals the hazards of moral compromise in the form of the suffering child. The suffering child represents any number of real-world examples of the ways people compromise their morals in the name of convenience and expediency. In Omelas, the people do not think a child should be made to suffer or that suffering is good, per se, but they nevertheless justify it in this particular case. This is similar to consumers in the real world who purchase clothing made by people kept in abusive working conditions. The consumers do not defend the abuse itself, but they justify it nonetheless. They may say they have no real power to change the working conditions in a faraway place. Or they may say the abuse is the necessary cost of cheap clothing, an undeniable benefit to the rest of the world. However, the immediacy and intimacy of Le Guin’s example shows that such compromises create a moral dilemma: either save the people from abuse, or hike the cost of clothing and reduce its availability. It may seem crass, but this is exactly the dilemma Le Guin highlights through her allegory.

Le Guin’s allegory also reveals the way in which a society can become trapped in a cycle of cruelty when the people compromise their morality. The people of Omelas explain away the suffering of the child in the basement with all manner of justifications. But in fact, they have compromised their morals in the name of the greater good, so much so that the whole society is completely dependent upon the child’s suffering. In this way, the people of Omelas are trapped. Perhaps if someone had rejected this “deal” the moment it was first proposed, a different society could have been built. But now it has gone on too long, and Omelas has become a complex beauty and a wonder. There is no turning back, and the loss of Omelas would be too great to bear. The narrator does offer one way out of the cycle, however. One can simply walk away. By walking away, the people who leave keep their morality intact.