Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which was first published in 1973, then collected in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975), has appeared since then in multiple anthologies. The story is an allegory about a utopian society, which invites readers to decide what the moral of the story should be. The story acknowledges its debt to the philosopher William James in its subtitle (“Variations on a Theme by William James”), but it also connects to works such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov as well as Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery in its use of the scapegoat theme. While the story has been used by pro-lifers and ecofeminists to support their points of view, the majority of the criticism has focused on the religious implications and the utopian nature of the place Le Guin calls Omelas.
The story begins with a description of the Festival of Summer in Omelas, a city by the sea. The thirdperson narrator uses an objective point of view to describe the city with its “Green Fields” that are protected on the west and north side by the snow-covered “Eighteen Peaks” (566–567), creating an almost fairy-tale existence for the people. The narrator then waxes poetic about the joy of the citizens in this idyllic environment and their enjoyment of the events of the festival.
In the seventh paragraph, however, the description turns to a not-so-idyllic windowless cellar room in which a child is locked, living in squalor and sensory deprivation. All in Omelas know of this child’s existence, but they ignore the entire situation, believing that changing anything would alter the very framework of their existence—that “all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed” if they were to intervene in the child’s circumstances (570).
The 13th paragraph introduces one more twist to the story. Sometimes, after people have gone to see for themselves the conditions under which the child lives, they leave home, never to return. They are “the ones who walk away from Omelas” (571), the people who discover a hard-to-absorb truth about their idyllic world and leave rather than be a party to it.
Brandt, Bruce. “Two Additional Antecedents for Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.’ ANQ 16, no. 3 (2003): 51–56.
Collins, Jerre. “Leaving Omelas: Questions of Faith and Understanding.” Studies in Short Fiction 27, no. 4 (1990): 525–535. Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” In The Norton Book of American Short Stories, edited by Peter S. Prescott. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988.