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The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

by Ursula K. Le Guin
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Last Updated on July 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771

Reception and Publication History: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” was originally published in 1973 in the magazine New Dimensions and earned Ursula K. Le Guin both the Hugo Award and the Locus Award for Best Short Story in 1974. Already a celebrated fantasy and science fiction writer, Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed had been published and critically acclaimed. In 1975, the story was published with an introduction by the author in a collection of 17 short stories titled The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. The story has since been widely anthologized and published as an independent text. 

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  • In her introduction to the 1975 version of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Le Guin describes how Salem, Oregon, became the inspiration for the quizzical name of the city: “It came from a road sign: Salem backwards . . . Salem equals schelomo equals salaam equals Peace. Melas. O melas. Omelas. Homme hélas.” Some translate “homme hélas” from French into English as “man, alas,” a phrase that carries emotional gravitas, especially considering the story’s concern with the woeful state of human societies.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Biography: Ursula K. Le Guin (1929–2018) was born in Berkeley, California, the youngest of four children. From an early age, she was drawn to creative expression and writing, and her parents fostered her interests. Le Guin attended Radcliffe College and then Columbia University before embarking to France as a Fulbright Fellow, where she met and married one of her peers, Charles Le Guin. The two moved to Portland, Oregon, where Charles taught at a nearby college and Ursula wrote. At first, her writing was not easily categorizable and was poorly received by publishers. She eventually found her niche as a writer of science fiction, a genre which was coming to prominence in the latter half of the 20th century. Throughout her life, Le Guin wrote prolifically, penning twelve children’s books and seven anthologies of poetry. Over the course of her career, Le Guin received a Kafka Prize, a Pushcart Prize, a National Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1997. 

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Latest answer posted October 12, 2011, 7:30 pm (UTC)

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Defying Genre and Inventing the Psychomyth: As a writer whose publishing career spanned nearly half a century and encompassed novels, short fiction, and poetry, Le Guin defies the typical genre categories often used to delineate 20th century writing. Her novels generally exist within the realm of science fiction, a genre that speculates on the effects that technology could have on humanity, and fantasy, a genre that presents the reader with impossible settings and scenarios. While Le Guin creates an imagined, seemingly utopian Omelas, the story lacks the technological twist of science fiction. Instead, she asks readers to consider how the majority’s pleasure comes at the cost of a minority’s suffering. Le Guin calls this medley of fantasy, utopian fiction, and philosophy a psychomyth, a genre defined by “more or less surrealistic tales, which share with fantasy the quality of taking place outside any history, outside of time, in that region of the living mind which [ . . . ] seems to be without spatial or temporal limits at all.” 

  • Literary Postmodernism: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” also has elements of postmodernism, an artistic movement that developed in the wake of World War II and questions the binary absolutes of the Cold War paradigm. The story lacks a clear-cut protagonist and antagonist, instead dwelling in moral relativity. Even more postmodern is its self-referential, unreliable narrator, who makes readers complicit in the construction of the society whose ethics they are then forced to question. 

Le Guin’s Various Influences: Inspiration for “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” comes from two distinct sources. In its original form, the story contains the subtitle “Variations on a theme by William James,” a nod to the American psychologist and philosopher. In her introduction to the story, Le Guin gives credit to a thought experiment proposed by James in his essay “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” in which “millions [are] 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.” Le Guin reinterprets this question when she asks readers to consider whether or not tormenting the child in the basement justifies the happiness of the people of Omelas. She also shares that she originally came across the idea for a thought experiment about social scapegoating in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, though she didn’t realize it at the time of writing “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” 

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