Analysis

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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 ...

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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).

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.”

Setting

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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" was composed in a time of enormous political, social, and cultural upheaval in the United States—the late 1960s and early 1970s—and it is probable that the events of this period influenced Le Guin's writing of the story.

Literary Style

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"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is the story of Omelas, a city where everyone seems to be happy and to live in peace and harmony. Toward the end of the story, however, the narrator reveals that the happiness of Omelas is dependent on the existence of a child who is locked in a small, windowless room and who is abused and mistreated. Although most of the citizens accept the situation, a small number of people leave Omelas forever after seeing the deplorable conditions in which the child lives.

Structure

The story is divided into two fairly distinct sections. In the first section, the narrator attempts to describe Omelas even though he/she notes more than once that the description is inadequate and does not capture the joy and happiness of Omelas. In the second section, the narrator reveals the existence of the child and matter-of-factly describes the awful conditions in which it is forced to live.

Narrative

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is told from the point of view of a first-person narrator. The narrator is not an active participant in the story and does not have any special insight into the characters' perceptions. Since the narrator invites the reader to take part in the description of Omelas, he/she is not an objective or reliable observer. For example, toward the beginning of the story, the narrator states: "I wish I could describe [Omelas] better. I wish I could convince you. Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all." Since readers are asked to develop their own perceptions of Omelas, they are implicated in the creation of Omelas as well as in the horrible situation on which the society rests.

Le Guin manipulates the narrative, and therefore the reader, by shifting tenses throughout the story. In the first paragraph, the narrator describes the festival in the past tense. As the narrator begins to describe Omelas in more detail, he/she moves to the conditional tense, a verb tense which is subject to or dependent on a condition. In this case, the reality of Omelas is dependent on the involvement of the reader. Finally, after the third paragraph, the narrative shifts to the present tense. Consequently, as Shoshanna Knapp writes in The Journal of Narrative Technique, the reader becomes ''stuck in the story, to be set free only when a few of the people of Omelas stride out of the land and the story, headed for a country that the narrator cannot describe and that, consequently, may not 'exist.'" The narrator's use of the pronoun "it" to describe the child also adds to the manipulation of the reader because it makes the child seem less than human. Therefore, it is easier for readers to justify the mistreatment and abuse of the child.

Allegory

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas'' is considered an allegory, or a tale in which characters representing things or abstract ideas are used to convey a message or teach a lesson. This story has been called both a political allegory and a religious allegory. The child, who is sacrificed for the good of the community, has been said to represent the underclass in capitalistic Western societies as well as the underdeveloped countries of the Third World. In capitalistic societies, particularly the United States, the wealth and privilege of the upper-class is often dependent on the exploitation or denial of the lower-classes. Additionally, some believe the continued prosperity of industrialized Western nations is due in part to the abuse and manipulation of Third World countries. "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas'' has also been characterized as a religious allegory, with some critics suggesting that the child is a Christ-like figure, or one who is sacrificed so that others may live.

Utopia

The story is also an example of Utopian literature, a form of fiction which describes an imaginary, ideal world where laws, government, and social conditions are perfect. Utopian literature also frequently addresses the impossibility of Utopian societies and examines the negative social, political, and psychological consequences of Utopian worlds. In "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," Le Guin shows that the idealized happiness of Omelas does not come without a price; in order for the society to exist, one child must be terribly abused. By presenting such a dilemma, Le Guin forces the reader to consider which is more important, morality or happiness.

Literary Qualities

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The story is divided into two fairly distinct sections. In the first section the narrator attempts to describe Omelas even though he or she notes more than once that the description is inadequate and does not capture the joy and happiness of Omelas. In the second section the narrator reveals the existence of the child and matter-of-factly describes the awful conditions in which it is forced to live.

A narrator who is not an active participant in the story and does not have any special insight into the characters' perceptions narrates "Omelas" in the third person. Since the narrator invites the reader to take part in the description of Omelas, he or she is not an objective or reliable observer. For example, toward the beginning of the story the narrator states: "I wish I could describe [Omelas] better. I wish I could convince you. Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all." Since readers are asked to develop their own perceptions of Omelas, they are implicated in the creation of Omelas as well as in the horrible situation on which the society rests.

Le Guin manipulates the narrative, and therefore the reader, by shifting tenses throughout the story. In the first paragraph the narrator describes the festival in the past tense. As the narrator begins to describe Omelas in more, detail, he or she moves to the conditional tense, a verb tense that is subject to or dependent on a condition. In this case the reality of Omelas is dependent on the involvement of the reader. Finally, after the third paragraph, the narrative shifts to the present tense. Consequently, as Shoshanna Knapp wrote in the Journal of Narrative Technique, the reader becomes "stuck in the story, to be set free only when a few of the people of Omelas stride out of the land and the story, headed for a country that the narrator cannot describe and that, consequently, may not 'exist.'" The narrator's use of the pronoun it to describe the child also adds to the manipulation of the reader because it makes the child seem less than human. Therefore, it is easier for readers to justify the mistreatment and abuse of the child.

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is considered an allegory, or a tale in which characters representing things or abstract ideas are used to convey a message or teach a lesson. This story has been called both a political allegory and a religious allegory. The child, who is sacrificed for the good of the community, has been said to represent the underclass in capitalistic Western societies as well as the underdeveloped countries of the Third World. In capitalistic societies, particularly the United States, the wealth and privilege of the upper class is dependent on the exploitation or denial of the lower classes. Additionally, some believe the continued prosperity of industrialized Western nations is due in part to the abuse and manipulation of Third World countries. "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" has also been characterized as a religious allegory, with some critics suggesting that the child is a Christ-like figure, or one who is sacrificed so that others may live.

The story is also an example of Utopian literature, a form of fiction that describes an imaginary, ideal world where laws, government, and social conditions are perfect. Utopian literature also frequently addresses the impossibility of Utopian societies and examines the negative social, political, and psychological consequences of Utopian worlds. In "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," Le Guin shows that the idealized happiness of Omelas does not come without a price; in order for the society to exist, one child must be terribly abused. By presenting such a dilemma, Le Guin forces the reader to consider which is more important, morality or happiness.

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