"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" (Variations on a theme by William James) is a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin, included in her short story collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters; it won the Hugo Award for short stories in 1974. While it has a plot, the descriptions of characters are bare and abstract, with the setting—the city Omelas—playing the largest role in the narrative.
Le Guin's story was originally published in New Dimensions 3, a hard-cover science fiction anthology edited by Robert Silverberg, in October 1973. It was reprinted in Le Guin's The Wind's Twelve Quarters in 1975, and has been frequently anthologized elsewhere.
In the story, Omelas is a utopian city of happiness and delight, whose inhabitants are smart and cultured. Everything about Omelas is pleasing, except for the secret of the city: the good fortune of Omelas requires that a single unfortunate child be kept in perpetual filth, darkness and misery, and that all her citizens should be told of this on coming of age.
After being exposed to the truth, most of the people of Omelas are initially shocked and disgusted, but are ultimately able to come to terms with the fact and resolve to live their lives in such a manner as to make the suffering of the unfortunate child worth it. However, some few of the citizens, young or old, silently walk away from the city, and no one knows where they go. The story ends with "The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas."
Background and themes
"The central idea of this psychomyth, the scapegoat", writes Le Guin, "turns up in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, and several people have asked me, rather suspiciously, why I gave the credit to William James. The fact is, I haven't been able to re-read Dostoyevsky, much as I loved him, since I was twenty-five, and I'd simply forgotten he used the idea. But when I met it in James's 'The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,' it was with a shock of recognition."
The quote from William James is:
Le Guin hit upon the name of the town on seeing a road sign for Salem, Oregon, in a car mirror. "[… People ask me] 'Where do you get your ideas from, Ms. Le Guin?' From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?"
"The Longest Voyage" by Poul Anderson (1961) • "Hothouse" by Brian W. Aldiss (1962) • "The Dragon Masters" by Jack Vance (1963) • "No Truce with Kings" by Poul Anderson (1964) • "Soldier, Ask Not" by Gordon R. Dickson (1965) • ""Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman" by Harlan Ellison (1966) • "Neutron Star" by Larry Niven (1967) • "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison (1968) • "The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World" by Harlan Ellison (1969) • "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" by Samuel R. Delany (1970)
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