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 work of short philosophical fiction 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. "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" was nominated for the Locus Award for Best Short Fiction in 1974 and won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1974.
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 young people 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; the narrator merely claims not to be sure of every particular.
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." 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 the 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 to this one injustice that 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 story 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."
Inspiration and themes
Le Guin stated 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?
Publication and analysis
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.
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."
A 2017 commentary in the online science fiction magazine Tor.com suggested that the story explored and challenged conceptions of genre as much as those of ethics, and said that it "packs quite a punch for such a short piece".
- Spivack, Charlotte, Ursula K. Le Guin, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984), page 159.
- "Locus Awards Nominee List". The Locus Index to SF Awards. Archived from the original on May 14, 2012. Retrieved May 12, 2011.
- "1974 Hugo Awards". The Hugo Awards. Retrieved May 12, 2011.
- 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.
- Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Bibliography: The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.
- Le Guin, Ursula K. 1993, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Creative Education, ISBN 978-0-88682501-0.
- Le Guin, Ursula K. 2014, The Unreal and The Real 2, Gollancz, ISBN 978-1-47320285-6.
- Agosta, Vincent. Returning to Omelas: A formal Analysis of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and its Relationship to Traditionalist Narrative Structure and Postmodernism.
- Bellot, Gabrielle (August 7, 2017). "Ursula Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" Defies Genre". Tor.com. Retrieved January 17, 2019.
- 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.