Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Ursula K. Le Guin has given this story a parenthetical subtitle, “Variations on a Theme by William James,” referring to the philosopher and psychologist who wrote that “some people could not accept even universal prosperity and happiness if it depended on the deliberate subjugation of an idiot child to abuse it could barely understand.” Le Guin’s story also has ties to Fyodor Dostoevski’s Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912), in which Ivan, the realistic brother, asks Alyosha, the religious brother, about God’s goodness in a world in which children suffer. Ivan asks Alyosha if he would be willing to be the creator of a world in which every being was happy, if that happiness were based on the suffering of a five-year-old girl. Alyosha is forced to concede that he would not.
These issues are related to the concept of theodicy, which attempts to answer the question of the problem of evil that is summed up by three statements: God is good, God is omnipotent and omniscient, and there is evil. The existence of evil is usually accepted as a given. If God is good, but not omnipotent, he wants to stop evil but cannot. If God is omnipotent, but not good, he could stop evil but would not. In the Judeo-Christian system, however, God is understood to be both good and omnipotent, so some other answer for the existence of evil is necessary.
The concept of human free will has often been used to explain...
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"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas'' is the story of a Utopian society whose survival depends on the existence of a child who is locked in a small room and mistreated. Although all of the citizens of Omelas are aware of the child's situation, most of them accept that their happiness is dependent on the child's "abominable misery." Sometimes, however, a few people, after visiting the child and seeing the deplorable conditions under which it lives, leave Omelas forever.
Morals and Morality
One of the major themes in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is morality. Le Guin once wrote in a preface to the story that it is a critique of American moral life. She also explained the story's subtitle, "Variations on a Theme by William James," noting that she was inspired to write the story by something James, an American psychologist and philosopher, stated in his "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life": "[If people could be] 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 torment, ... how hideous a thing would be [the enjoyment of this happiness] when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain." Although James believed people would not accept such a bargain, Le Guin presents in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas'' a society that does just that so that she can explore the reasons why people avoid or renounce moral responsibility. In fact, the few...
(The entire section is 958 words.)