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The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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What is the mood or tone of "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"?

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In the short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," the author poses some serious questions to the reader.

As the story opens, the mood appears quite joyful and idyllic. The Festival of Summer is taking place. There are "merry women," and there is a "sweetness in...

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the air." However, it doesn't take Le Guin long to switch this mood to one of a much darker nature.

When the child in the basement is introduced, the tone is dark and ominous; the mood is somber, brooding, and shocking. The child is treated inhumanely. All the people of the town know this, but most are willing to look the other way. Their own happiness depends on the misery of the child.

Le Guin emphasizes the theme of tragic trade-offs and exploitation; many of us are willing to turn away from misery if we are not affected and can even benefit from it. In today's world, there are many children being exploited. Consider child labor in sweat shops. Yet we still purchase clothes made by those children in developing countries. It is suggested that we should be the ones who walk away. This story is a cautionary tale.

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The narration of this story is very interesting; the narrator speaks of the city in very broad generalities.  He leaves many of the details up to the imagination of the reader.  He gives the basic outline of the city and the people, but not the up-close distinctions, instead leaving the reader to fill in details "as you like it."  This makes the mood of the story very ponderous, very calm and serene, and pleasantly unintimidating.  This is why when the abused child is introduced, it is even more shocking-this contrast with the idealistic, happy, make-it-what-you-want-it-to-be type of storyline is jolting, just as the child is meant to be jolting to that society.  The mood, once the child is introduced, becomes more serious and melancholy, but is still distanced and calm.  The narrator makes no judgments, just states things as the people of Omelas see it:  To release the child from its torture would be "To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed."

The overall calm, ponderous, thoughtful, and distanced mood of the narrator helps increase the philosophical impact of the story; this helps, since the implications of this story are quite significant.

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What is the tone of the story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas"?

Ursula K. Le Guin is an award-winning science-fiction and fantasy author, so the tone of the story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" is poetic, almost as a fable. The opening lines set the stage:

With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. The ringing of the boats in harbor sparkled with flags. In the streets between houses with red roofs and painted walls, between old moss-grown gardens and under avenues of trees, past great parks and public buildings, processions moved.

Using powerful description, Le Guin shows an idyllic city of happy, content people, people who enjoy prosperity and life, with few dismal thoughts. Later in the story, the narrator explains that the world of Omelas is not set in stone:

Perhaps it would be bestif you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all. For instance, how about technology? ...they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that: it doesn’t matter. As you like it.

This allows the story to have more of a fairy-tale aspect, instead of a hard-and-fast solid world. The narrator is more concerned with the sense of the world, the feel of the people who live their happy lives with the knowledge that their happiness depends on someone else's suffering. The reader can then focus a personal sense of "ultimate happiness" on Omelas before the twist in the story comes:

In the room, a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.
The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, "eh-haa, eh-haa," and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there.
(Le Guin, "The Ones Who Walk...,"

The tone changes abruptly to flat, simple descriptions, showing that however the outside is glorious, the inside of this room never changes. It is this place and its horrors that allow the outside utopia to exist. This above all else is the only concrete thing about Omelas; whatever else is "imagined" above, it is dependent on this single moral choice.

The last line -- "But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas." -- returns to the poetic form, and admits that there might be nowhere to go for the people who have lived there. Just like the reader imagines Omelas, the escape must also be imagined, because once the knowledge of the starving child is known, it cannot be forgotten.

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