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Style and Technique

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” won the Hugo Award for best short story in 1974. Although the Hugo is an award for science fiction, this story may more accurately be called a fantasy: Science fiction discusses the improbable; fantasy examines the impossible. First published in New Dimensions 3, the story has been widely anthologized since then, notably in Le Guin’s own The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975). Le Guin’s work often has sociological or anthropological elements; this can easily be seen in her novels, including The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974).

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Reliability is a problem for Le Guin’s narrator in this story. At times the narrator does not know the truth and therefore guesses what could be, presenting these guesses as often essential detail. The narrator says “I think” and “I think there ought to be,” rather than telling the reader what is. Asking if the reader believes what he says about the festival, the city, and the joy, or if the ones who walk away are not more credible, implies that the reader should have doubts. Can the narrator be trusted by a reader who is being asked to approve the details of the story? Such questions raise doubts in the reader’s mind about what the narrator is conveying. Only the description of the child itself lacks asides.

The narrator of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” cannot tell a straightforward tale. The story about the summer festival is diverted into a short treatise on happiness, what happiness truly is and how the Omelas citizens have achieved it. This discussion encompasses not only those at the festival, but also those who choose to leave the city. What is happiness? What should one be willing to sacrifice for happiness?

All of the narrator’s questions invite the reader to place himself or herself in the position of the people of Omelas. Do you need this to make you happy? Then you may have it. Once the reader begins to enjoy the city and begins to see its happiness as a good thing, then the reader, like the adolescents in the story, must be shown that on which the happiness depends. Readers must face the question of what they would be willing to sacrifice for happiness, for “the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies.”


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"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is an 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. 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 backward. Thus, "Omelas" is a kind of 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 the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, 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.

The story is subtitled "Variations on a Theme by William James." William James was an early-twentieth-century psychologist and philosopher and the brother of the renowned 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 consequence of a person's belief. Taking this theory to its moral conclusion, she fashioned the land of Omelas. "Omelas"...

(The entire section contains 2142 words.)

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Historical and Social Context