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? 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 entire section is 1,956 words.)