The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
|"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"|
First book edition
|Author||Ursula K. Le Guin|
|Published in||New Dimensions, volume 3|
"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is a 1973 plotless, short, descriptive work of philosophical fiction, though popularly classified as a short story, by American writer Ursula K. Le Guin. With deliberately both vague and vivid descriptions, the narrator depicts a summer festival in the utopian city of Omelas, whose prosperity depends on the perpetual misery of a single child.
Le Guin's piece was originally published in New Dimensions 3, a hard-cover science fiction anthology edited by Robert Silverberg, in October 1973. It was reprinted in Le Guin's The Wind's Twelve Quarters in 1975, and has been frequently anthologized elsewhere.
It has also appeared as an independently published, 31-page hardcover book for young adults in 1993.
It was republished in the second volume of the short-story anthology The Unreal and the Real in 2014.
The only chronological element of the work is that it begins by describing the first day of summer in Omelas, a shimmering city of unbelievable happiness and delight. In Omelas, the summer solstice is celebrated with a glorious festival and a race featuring children on horseback. The vibrant festival atmosphere, however, seems to be an everyday characteristic of the blissful community, whose citizens, though limited in their advanced technology to communal (rather than private) resources, are still intelligent, sophisticated, and cultured. Omelas has no kings, soldiers, priests, or slaves. The specific socio-politico-economic setup of the community is not mentioned, but the narrator merely explains that the reader cannot be sure of every particular.
Self-admittedly, the uncertain narrator reflects that "Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all." The narrator even suggests that, if necessary, the reader may include an orgy in their mental picture of Omelas.
Everything about Omelas is so abundantly pleasing that the narrator decides the reader is not yet truly convinced of its existence and so elaborates upon one final element of the city: its one atrocity. The city's constant state of serenity and splendor requires that a single unfortunate child be kept in perpetual filth, darkness, and misery.
Once citizens are old enough to know the truth, most, though initially shocked and disgusted, ultimately acquiesce with that one injustice which secures the happiness of the rest of the city. However, a few citizens, young and old, silently walk away from the city, and no one knows where they go. The writing ends with "The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of 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."
Background and themes
Le Guin states that the city's name is pronounced "OH-meh-lahss". 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?"
"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' '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 sceptical 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?
Introducing the short work in her 2012 collection The Unreal and the Real, Volume Two, Le Guin noted that The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas "has a long and happy career of being used by teachers to upset students and make them argue fiercely about morality."
Similarity with the Tamir Triad
The Tamír Triad fantasy books by Lynn Flewelling have a similar premise. At the outset of the first part, a centuries-old wizard observes a happy and prosperous realm, and muses on the fact that in order to create that happy realm it was absolutely needed to perpetrate an atrocity - to kill a newborn baby at the very moment of birth: "This beautiful pearl has filth at its center". The plot of the series' three books then goes hundreds of years backward, to describe the circumstances which forced a group of well-meaning people into such an act - with the protagonists being haunted throughout the series' three books by guilt feelings and by the murdered baby's vengeful ghost.
- Spivack, Charlotte, Ursula K. Le Guin, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984), page 159.
- "Locus Awards Nominee List". The Locus Index to SF Awards. Retrieved 2011-05-12.
- "1974 Hugo Awards". The Hugo Awards. Retrieved 2011-05-12.
- Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Bibliography: The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas
- Le Guin, Ursula K. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Creative Education, 1993. ISBN 9780886825010
- Le Guin, Ursula K., The Unreal and The Real Volume 2, Gollancz, 2014, ISBN 978-1473202856
- Boyd, Jason. "Forty years later, Omelas still haunts". The Nerdclave. Retrieved 2014-05-18.
- Le Guinn, Ursula K. (2012). The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin. Volume Two: Outer Space, Inner Lands. Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press. p. iv. ISBN 9781618730350.
- Kennedy, X.J., and Dana Gioia (ed.): An Introduction to Fiction, 8th ed., page 274. Longman, 2004. ISBN 0-321-08531-0.
- James, William. "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life". April 1891.
- Bloom, Harold, ed. (1986). Ursula K. Le Guin (1st ed.). New York, NY: Chelsea House. ISBN 0-87754-659-2.
- Cadden, Mike (2005). Ursula K. Le Guin Beyond Genre: Fiction for Children and Adults (1st ed.). New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-99527-2.
- Le Guin, Ursula (1975). The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1st ed.). New York, NY: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-012562-4.
- Spivack, Charlotte (1984). Ursula K. Le Guin (1st ed.). Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0-8057-7393-2.