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The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

by Ursula K. Le Guin
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Last Updated on September 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 887

So you’re going to teach Ursula K. Le Guin's “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, this classic short story has been a mainstay of English classrooms since its publication in 1973. While it has its challenges—an unusual narrative voice and mature content—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. Studying “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” will give students unique insight into social ethics, complicit culpability, and the importance of understanding rhetoric, literary ambiguity, and the power of narrative voice. Let’s look at several things to keep in mind before you begin.

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Facts at a Glance 

  • Publication Date: 1973 
  • Recommended Grade Levels: 7th and up 
  • Approximate Word Count: 2, 800 
  • Author: Ursula K. Le Guin 
  • Country of Origin: United States 
  • Genre: Short Fiction 
  • Literary Period: Postmodern 
  • Conflict: Person vs. Society, Person vs. Self 
  • Narration: First Person, Second Person, Third-Person Limited Omniscient 
  • Setting: Fictional City of Omelas, Unspecified Era 
  • Dominant Literary Devices: Rhetorical Questions 
  • Tone: Contemplative, Objective, Poignant


Texts that Go Well with “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

“The Garden Party” is a 1921 short story written by Katherine Mansfield. The story follows a teenage girl, Laura, as she helps plan a large garden party for her wealthy family and friends. Over the course of the day, she learns that tragedy has befallen a poor family living nearby. Her experience of bearing witness to the results of this tragedy—and the ambiguous epiphany that follows—invite readers to address similar thematic questions as those addressed in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” 

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The Giver by Lois Lowry is a futuristic dystopian novel set in a black-and-white society where every aspect of an individual’s life—from career to spouse—is designated by a centralized government. Published in 1993, the novel follows Jonas, a twelve-year-old boy, as he is selected to carry the collective memories for the community. As Jonas learns to see colors and feel complex human emotions—such as love, desire, and grief—he comes to realize how limiting it is to live within the confines of his authoritarian society. Similar to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Jonas must make a choice as to whether or not to continue to participate in his society. 

Hamlet by William Shakespeare contains the famous soliloquy in which the main character posits the question “To be, or not to be?” Hamlet’s existential quandary applies to his willingness to continue living. The people of Omelas ponder a similar question, asking themselves whether to be, or not to be a citizen of Omelas. Hamlet’s existential dilemma seems to nod to the dilemma of the people of Omelas when he ponders if death is “The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns, puzzles the will, / And makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of?” 

The Left Hand of Darkness, written by Ursula K. Le Guin and published in 1969, established Le Guin as an eminent science-fiction writer and was one of the first novels to use the genre to explore cultural gender norms. The novel—one of many Le Guin set in the fictional Hainish universe—follows protagonist Genly Ai on a diplomatic mission to the nearby planetary system Gethen. Once there, he is surprised to find that the people of Gethen are ambisexual with no fixed gender. The novel is celebrated as a totem of feminist science fiction for its bold explorations of the aspects of humanity and culture that exist beyond gender. 

Lord of the Flies by William Golding is a dystopian novel that explores human nature and social hierarchies by placing a group of British school boys on a remote tropical island. Similar to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” this 1954 novel considers the willingness of a group to victimize marginalized individuals in the pursuit of pleasure and explores the extent to which all citizens are accountable for the moral transgressions of the culture from which they benefit. 

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, published in 1948, is similar to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” in its narrative structure and content. The third-person narration allows readers to peer into a society which, like Omelas, conducts a bizarre ritual to ensure the happiness of its citizens. The townspeople of a nondescript town at an unspecified time conduct a lottery to determine who “wins.” However, the winner does not win a prize; instead, they are chosen as the town’s scapegoat and are stoned to death. Like Le Guin’s story, Jackson’s story deals with themes of human morality, culpability, and free will. 

The Odyssey by Homer is a classical epic poem that follows Odysseus, a Greek hero of the Trojan War, as he journeys back to his home island, Ithaca. As Odysseus is waylaid on his quest, he repeatedly confronts the same dilemma: Should he continue to fight his way home and ultimately resume his duties as king, husband, and father? Or should he allow his memories of home to wash away and enjoy the pleasures and adventures of life at sea? A similar choice between home and the wider world confronts the people of Omelas.

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Key Plot Points