Identifying Moral Compromises in Society: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” can be read as an allegory that illuminates the experience of living as an individual within a larger social group. When individuals participate in society, they inherently relinquish certain rights to gain certain privileges, a concept that most students grasp easily. What can be more difficult to understand is that participating in society also means accepting, or even being complicit in, the moral transgressions committed by that society for the benefit of the majority. Le Guin’s story offers a thought experiment by which students can begin to approach this idea: Does a city’s happiness justify one child’s suffering? By approaching the citizens of Omelas as one would approach the characters in an instructional fable, students can begin to understand the moral compromises inherent in social participation.
- For discussion: What privileges do the people of Omelas have? What rights, if any, do they give up in order to gain those privileges?
- For discussion: Consider the morality of Omelas. How important is one individual’s happiness when compared to another’s—or to a majority of others? Given that you know the unsettling truth about Omelas, is it right or wrong to stay? Is it right or wrong to go? What values do you consider when making that decision?
- For discussion: What comparisons can you make between the story and our own reality? Does the city of Omelas illustrate any patterns you have seen in societies, present or past?
Analyzing Diction to Understand Tone: The juxtaposition between the experience of the citizens of Omelas and the child in the basement is jarring, if not shocking, to first-time readers. How did Le Guin, as a writer, create this effect? “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is an ideal story to introduce students to the power that diction has to control tone, the narrator’s attitude toward events in the text, and the meaning of the story.
- For discussion: Which vocabulary words seem the most important and revealing in the description of the Festival of Summer? Why? Brainstorm some denotative and connotative meanings of these terms.
- For discussion: Which vocabulary words seem the most important and interesting from the description of the child in the basement? Why? Brainstorm some denotative and connotative meanings of these terms.
- For discussion: What is the narrator’s attitude toward the citizens of Omelas and the child in the basement? How would you describe the narrator’s attitude and feelings? How does the story’s tone develop its themes?
Studying the Rhetoric of the Narrative Voice: For many readers, the most impactful element of the story is the use of the narrative voice. Tantalizing and teasing, the narrator invites readers into the story, painting a picture of a utopian city while simultaneously pointing out its incredibility. By the time readers learn about the child in the basement, they have already become complicit in the fantasy of Omelas and have experienced the bounty of the city at the cost of one child’s suffering. The story provides an effective entrée into the study of rhetoric. The text offers students an opportunity to study the development of ethos, pathos, and logos, and the extent to which these devices affect readers’ experiences.
- For discussion: As you read the story, respond to the rhetorical questions in the text verbally or artistically. Compare and contrast your own version of the utopian city with those of your classmates. How do the specific details of the story affect your understanding?
- For discussion: Consider the function of the rhetorical questions the narrator poses readers. What information does the narrator want?...
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- How does this literary technique affect your experience as a reader?
- For discussion: How are ethos, pathos, and logos developed within the text? How does Le Guin craft the narrative voice to build a relationship with readers and develop themes in the text?
The Power of Free Will as a Theme: Free will is a theme that runs through the text. The citizens of Omelas are free to choose their pleasures on the first day of the Festival of Summer. Further, the narrator invites readers to add details of their own to the story, a rarity in literature. However, the imprisoned child’s lack of freedom throws the joy of these freedoms into stark relief. The culmination of the story leads readers to the inevitable question faced by all members of society, whether or not they realize it: should individuals accept the moral compromises made for their pleasure, or should they refuse?
- For discussion: Who in the story exercises free will? How so? What justifications does the story offer for those who stay? What justifications does the story offer for those who walk away?
- For discussion: Imagine you are a citizen of Omelas. Would you stay or walk away? Why? What factors influence your decision? What are the moral implications of staying or leaving?
- For discussion: The story presents the ending as a binary: individuals either stay in Omelas or walk away. Do the citizens of Omelas have any other choices? If so, what are they?
- For discussion: Do students have free will in society? Ask students to consider the extent to which they are able to walk away from the injustices they see occurring in their society.
- For discussion: Le Guin gives readers the freedom to participate in the creation of the story. How does this device inform your understanding of the theme of free will? How does your freedom and power as a reader influence your reaction to the confined child? How does it influence your decision to stay or leave Omelas?
The Importance of Human Rights as a Theme: Most readers are taken aback by the description of the child in the basement, particularly due to the disquieting details offered: “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.” The juxtaposition between this squalid scene and the utopian joy experienced by the revelers forces readers to consider their own definition of human rights and whether or not the disempowered are as deserving of human rights as any other citizen.
- For discussion: Compare and contrast the rights of the citizens of Omelas with those of the child in the basement. Which human rights abuses do the citizens of Omelas commit?
- For discussion: Does the child in the basement deserve the same rights as the other citizens? Why or why not? What qualities or actions might justify the loss of an individual’s rights?
- For discussion: How are human rights defined within the context of the story? How does this definition compare and contrast with students’ own definitions of human rights?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
Students May Be Unfamiliar with Le Guin’s Psychomyth Genre: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” hovers between genres, combining elements of fantasy, philosophy, and utopian fiction. The story lacks a traditional narrative and characters, and, with its open ending, readers are more often than not left in ambiguity and discomfort.
- What to do: Define “psychology” and “mythology” and ask students to develop their own definition of “psychomyth.” How does this label accord with their experience of the story as readers? Invite students to invent their own genre to describe the story.
- What to do: Provide students with formal definitions of other genres, particularly fantasy, philosophical fiction, and utopian fiction. Which devices and details did Le Guin include or omit from the story, and how do these choices affect its classification by genre? How do these choices affect the meaning of the story?
- What to do: Ask students to consider the value of classifying texts by genre. What value do genre labels give to readers, editors, or librarians? If “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” were written today, in what kind of publication would students expect to find it?
The Narrative Voice Is Complex and Atypical: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” has a distinct narrative voice, one that engages the reader directly. The narrator is admittedly unable to provide a complete description of the city and only offers minimal characterizing details about its inhabitants. Many students struggle to discuss a story with such ambiguity.
- What to do: Consider modeling a think-aloud for the students in which you analyze how you interpret the narrative voice as you read.
- What to do: Ask students to consider how the story would be different if it had an alternate narrator. How would students’ understanding of the story shift if it were narrated by the child in the basement? Or the child playing the flute? Or one of the individuals who walks away?
- What to do: Use the story as an opportunity to introduce students to rhetoric as a literary discipline.
The Story Features Mature Content: In an attempt to avoid making the story too “goody-goody,” the narrator invites the reader to imagine an orgy in Omelas, an event that will alternately titillate, scandalize, and/or confuse students. Further, the narrator describes “drooz,” a consciousness-enhancing substance enjoyed, without guilt, by the people of Omelas.
- What to do: Encourage students to consider why Le Guin includes mentions of sexual and intoxicatory practices. How do these elements contribute to Le Guin’s broader goals and themes? By considering these more mature passages from an aesthetic standpoint, students can think critically about them, rather than remaining merely titillated, scandalized, or confused.
- What to do: Explain that sensitive behavior, such as sexuality and substance use, can serve as a window into the values and mores of different cultures. Provide a variety of examples from cultures around the world as to accepted and taboo behaviors. Remind students that one of the benefits of reading is to learn about other cultures, thereby illuminating the constructs of one’s own.
- What to do: Consider using an opt-out permission slip if necessary. Alternately, you may choose to censor portions of the story as desired. The surest measure may be to reserve the story for sufficiently mature students.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the story.
Focus on literary and poetic devices. Alliteration, repetition, simile, personification, and anthropomorphism are all important to the story’s development. Tracking the deployment of these devices may further illuminate the themes of the story.
Focus on characterization. The two characters whom readers learn about the most in the text are the narrator and the child in the basement. Challenge students to apply the classical elements of characterization—physical description, actions, inner thoughts, reaction, and speech—to each. What do students learn through this type of analysis about each character? About Omelas?
Focus on the story as a tool to understand history. The story provides a moral framework for understanding social practices such as scapegoating and the pursuit of utopian ends through savage means. Encourage students to identify historical examples of these practices. As a class, bring Le Guin’s story into conversation with those historical episodes; discuss the moral tensions in those episodes. Compare and contrast the decisions made during those episodes with those made by the people of Omelas.