"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is Ursula K. Le Guin's allegorical tale about a Utopian society in which Omelas' happiness is made possible by the sacrifice of one child for the sake of the group. In an allegory, many symbols and images are used in an attempt to illustrate universal truths about life. ''Omelas'' was first published in the magazine New Directions in 1973, and the following year it won Le Guin the prestigious Hugo Award for best short story. It was subsequently printed in her short story collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters in 1975. Le Guin is known primarily as a science fiction and fantasy writer, and "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is notable for being one of the few short stories of the genre to be widely anthologized in collections of general fiction. It is also notable for containing a vagueness uncharacteristic of many short story writers; its narrator leaves it up to the reader to imagine many of the town's details and characters.
The story is subtitled "Variations on a Theme by William James." William James was the older brother of the novelist Henry James. Le Guin was intrigued by James's theory of pragmatism, which states that a person's thoughts should guide his or her actions, and that truth is the consequences of a person's belief. Taking this theory to its moral conclusion, she fashioned the land of Omelas.
Readers looking for clues as to where the city of Omelas is located should note that Le Guin devised the town's name by reading a roadside sign backwards. Thus, "Omelas" is an anagram of Salem, Oregon, a fact that the author has stated is not particularly relevant. Some critics have noted the similarity of the story's ideas with the themes of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who wrote Crime and Punishment, another work concerned with morality. But Le Guin has stated that only in retrospect did the similarities between his work and hers occur to her; it was not a major influence in the writing of the story.