Summary and Allegorical Significance in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"

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Ursula Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" was first published in 1973 in New Dimensions 3 and has been published in many anthologies since. When it appeared for the second time in 1975 as part of her short story collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters, Le Guin added a two-page preface in which she addresses her subtitle, "Variations on a Theme by William James," and its connection to the story's theme. Le Guin writes in this preface: "The central idea of this psycho myth, the scapegoat, turns up in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamozov, and several people have asked me, rather suspiciously, why I gave the credit to William James." She goes on to say that not having re-read Dostoevsky since she was twenty-five, she had ''simply forgotten he used the idea. But when [she] met it in James's 'The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,' it was with a shock of recognition." Le Guin's preface is friendly and informative in nature: for example, she tells the reader that the name "Omelas" came from her reading the road sign for Salem, Oregon backwards, something she commonly did, reading the word "stop," for example, as ''pots.'' The reference to James and Dostoevsky seems, too, to be merely a helpful, explanatory note from the author, but here the nature of Le Guin's comments cannot to be taken for granted. Critic Shoshana Knapp reminds us of D.H. Lawrence's suggestion to "trust the tale instead of the teller": Simply because the author says something does not mean the reader needs to believe it, and perhaps the people who asked Le Guin about Dostoevsky ''suspiciously" were right to be suspicious, regardless of her casual dismissal. It matters whether or not one trusts Le Guin's comments about her inspiration for this story.

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Since both Dostoevsky and James have written pieces which include some kind of scapegoat which could be a model for the locked-up child of Omelas, looking at these pieces in light of Le Guin's story can be instructive. The passage she cites from James says that if millions of 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." James holds the optimistic position that people would not accept this bargain, that a "specifical and independent sort of emotion" would arise which would "immediately make us feel" its hideous nature, "even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered." In James's view, people would immediately spurn such happiness. The premise of "Omelas" is that the opposite would hold true: in Omelas, walking away is not the norm but happens rarely and is considered, as Knapp points out, "'incredible.' Le Guin's story, then, seems to refute the Jamesian assumption of an innate human decency; in Omelas, the mean and the vulgar are accepted as a necessary part of existence."

Certainly Le Guin's story is aiming for some kind of political interpretation, though exactly what that should be is less clear. Le Guin deals with similar themes in some of her other works, including The Dispossessed, The Tombs of Atuan, and Rocannon's World. Her story "The Day Before the Revolution," which immediately follows "Omelas" in The Wind's Twelve Quarters, is about one of those who walked away, Odo, the female founder of the planet in The Dispossessed . Regarding James's encapsulation of the scapegoat, Le Guin writes that "the dilemma of the American conscience can hardly be better stated." As critic Jerre Collins puts it, ''the dilemma of the American conscience seems to be twofold: we cannot renounce the exploitation of others that makes possible our high standard of living, nor can we renounce...

(The entire section contains 7049 words.)

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