illustration of a young boy in a cage in the center with lines connecting the boys cage to images of happy people and flowers

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Start Free Trial

Explain how "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" demonstrates how stories function in a society. What stories do we tell ourselves, and what do they do for us?

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" describes a society that is apparently perfect. However, it contains the suffering of one child, whose role is to support the happiness of all the other citizens. The narrator acknowledges that some might argue that such an arrangement would be justified if there were some great benefit for humanity as a whole. But no such justification exists.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” shows how stories can define a society. The way Omelas’s society functions on the suffering of one child brings to mind the way in which many contemporary societies function on the suffering of oppressed populations. Many people today live in a society that only works the way it does because others are suffering. For instance, many people live a luxurious materialistic lifestyle in the United States because people in other countries are working for low wages to mass produce products for American consumption. Many people in the United States are aware of this inequity but tell themselves stories to justify the way things are. For example, some people believe the narrative that the oppressed are just not working hard enough or lack the intelligence to create a nicer life for themselves. These explanations are ultimately just stories that allow those who are living a nice life to rid themselves of guilt.

Le Guin’s story itself also shows the power stories have to prompt readers to reflect on the way they live. The story is a political allegory that critiques oppression in the Western world in a strategic way. Consider how the narrator tells the story by asking questions that make the reader constantly aware that this is a work of fiction. For example, the narrator asks questions like,

“Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.”

This method of narration reminds the reader that this is a work of fiction working to convey a particular message while also allowing the reader to place himself in the narrative. The narrator’s questions and objective approach to the story make readers reflect on what they themselves think about the striking situation. The way the story does this shows how stories function to make readers reflect on themselves and the world around them.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" tell us about how we make decisions in our own society and how our metanarratives function?

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" describes what appears at first to be a perfect society, a shining city of great beauty, in which everyone is happy. However, the author goes on to relate that one of its citizens, a child, is kept in perpetual misery and filth, and the other citizens are all aware of this situation and are taught that their own prosperity depends on it. The story, therefore, highlights the cruelty, injustice, and irrationality on which advanced societies can rest. The people of Omelas have no reason to believe that their prosperity is made possible by their use of the child as a scapegoat. It is merely a traditional belief. Even if it were true, no theory of justice could possibly endorse such entrenched unfairness.

The greatest crimes in American history have often been excused by metanarratives about the importance of maintaining a civilization based, ironically, on justice and brotherhood. In this story, Le Guin reduces the many who have suffered in order to support a civilization whose benefits they do not share to the smallest possible number. In doing so, she shows that, for those with a sense of justice, advanced civilizations which depend on exploitation will always inevitably rest on an intolerable basis. She also shows the selfishness displayed by those who do not have to pay the price of social injustice.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on