The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"
Short story by Ursula K. Le Guin
First book edition
CountryUnited States
Published inNew Dimensions 3
Publication typeAnthology
Media typePrint
Publication date1973

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" /ˈməˌlɑːs/[1] is a 1973 short work of philosophical fiction by American writer Ursula K. Le Guin. With deliberately both vague and vivid descriptions, the narrator depicts a summer festival in the utopian city of Omelas, whose prosperity depends on the perpetual misery of a single child.[2] "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" was nominated for the Locus Award for Best Short Fiction in 1974[3] and won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1974.[4]


The only chronological element of the work is that it begins by describing the first day of summer in Omelas, a shimmering city of unbelievable happiness and delight. In Omelas, the summer solstice is celebrated with a glorious festival and a race featuring young people on horseback. The vibrant festival atmosphere, however, seems to be an everyday characteristic of the blissful community, whose citizens, though limited in their technology and resources, are still intelligent, sophisticated, and cultured. Omelas has no kings, soldiers, priests, or slaves. The specific socio-politico-economic setup of the community is not mentioned; the narrator merely claims not to be sure of every particular.

The narrator reflects that, "Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all." Everything about Omelas is so abundantly pleasing that the narrator decides the reader is not yet truly convinced of its existence and so elaborates upon the final element of the city: its one atrocity. The city's constant state of serenity and splendor requires that a single unfortunate child be kept in perpetual filth, darkness, and misery.

Once citizens are old enough to know the truth, most, though initially shocked and disgusted, ultimately acquiesce to this one injustice that secures the happiness of the rest of the city. However, some citizens, young and old, walk away from the city after seeing the child. Each is alone, and no one knows where they go, but none come back. The story ends by stating, "The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of 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."

Inspiration and themes[edit]

Le Guin’s short story explores the ideas of utilitarianism. Le Guin stated that the city's name is pronounced "OH-meh-lahss".[5] 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?"[6]

"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' 'The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life', it was with a shock of recognition."

The quote from William James is:

Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's utopias should all be outdone, and millions 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 torture, what except a sceptical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?[6][7]

As for the original Dostoyevsky quote, Charlie Jane Anders of Gizmodo notes that

"In Karamazov, Dovstoevsky [sic] poses the problem of the Tortured Child:

'Tell me yourself — I challenge you: let’s assume that you were called upon to build the edifice of human destiny so that men would finally be happy and would find peace and tranquility. If you knew that, in order to attain this, you would have to torture just one single creature, let’s say the little girl who beat her chest so desperately in the outhouse, and that on her unavenged tears you could build that edifice, would you agree to do it? Tell me and don’t lie!”

'No I would not,' Alyosha said softly."[8]

Dostoyevsky's original description of the dilemma refers to the doctrine of salvation through the crucifixion of Jesus.

Publication history[edit]

Le Guin's piece was originally published in New Dimensions 3, a hardcover 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.[9] It has also appeared as an independently published, 31-page hardcover book for young adults in 1993.[10]

It was republished in the second volume of the short-story anthology The Unreal and the Real in 2014.[11] Introducing the short work in her 2012 collection The Unreal and the Real, Volume Two, Le Guin noted that "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" "has a long and happy career of being used by teachers to upset students and make them argue fiercely about morality."[5]

Cultural legacy[edit]

Game designers Ricardo Bare and Harvey Smith drew upon "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" as inspiration for the supernatural being of the Outsider, an omnipotent immortal who is reviled as an avatar of evil, in the Dishonored video game series.[12]

In Plotted: A Literary Atlas, artist and author Andrew DeGraff illustrated a map visualizing Le Guin's story. DeGraff wrote that: "Le Guin provides us with the building blocks to construct the city of Omelas, but if we want to forsake it afterward, then we too have to strike out alone."[13]

The 2017 music video for "Spring Day" by South Korean band BTS references Le Guin's short story, both thematically and in displaying a hotel named 'Omelas'.[14][15]

Also in 2017, the music project led by Lou Diamond "fail better, heal faster" references the book in the title of the song "My Omelias," and the lyric "You're only ten feet away, and I can't even ask if you're doing okay."

N. K. Jemisin's 2018 collection How Long 'til Black Future Month? opens with a piece titled "The Ones Who Stay and Fight", which is a direct response to Le Guin's story. In an interview with The Paris Review, the writer stated that many readers misunderstand Le Guin as arguing that the only way to create a better society is to leave, and that in fact Le Guin was arguing that one has to "fix" their society, "especially when there's nowhere to walk away to."[16] Jemisin's 2022 novel The World We Make makes allusion to the story as well, using the descriptor "Omelasian" in reference to children being captive in a basement.[17]

In a 2019 article, Joe George argued that the 2019 film Us was influenced by both Le Guin's short story as well as Octavia E. Butler's "Speech Sounds".[18]

Catherine Lacey's 2020 novel Pew begins with an epigraph from "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas", quoting the last paragraph of the story.[19] The novel itself is heavily tied to Le Guin's work, with several key similarities present.[20]

Executive producers and co-showrunners Michelle Paradise and Alex Kurtzman cited Le Guin's short story as inspiration for the plot line of the third season of Star Trek: Discovery, with Kurtzman noting that both creators were interested in the central dilemma being solely caused by a child.[21] Several reviewers also noted a strong similarity between the story and the episode "Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach" of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds first season. One such was Anthony Pascale, who called the episode "almost a beat-for-beat recreation" of Le Guin's work.[22] On the satirical website Cracked, JM McNab pointed out the long history of Le Guin's influence on the Star Trek franchise and that while the writers of Star Trek: Discovery did name a ship after her, the honor is "still not as good as being credited".[23]

The 2022 fantasy novel The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik features a dilemma similar to the one presented in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas."[24]

Isabel J. Kim's short story "Why Don't We Just Kill the Kid In the Omelas Hole", published in Clarkesworld Magazine #209 (February 2024), is set in the same fictional universe, some time after the events of Le Guin's story.[25] It discusses a third option besides staying in Omelas or walking away: killing the suffering child (described by one of the murderers as a form of accelerationism).


  1. ^ As pronounced by Le Guin: Le Guin, Ursula (July 14, 2014). Ursula Le Guin at Portland Community College - Rock Creek Campus (Interview). Interviewed by Melissa Manolas. Rock Creek, Oregon: Portland Community College. Event occurs at 1:08:03. Archived from the original on December 29, 2022. Retrieved December 28, 2022.
  2. ^ Spivack, Charlotte (1984). Ursula K. Le Guin. Boston: Twayne Publishers. p. 159.
  3. ^ "Locus Awards Nominee List". The Locus Index to SF Awards. Archived from the original on May 14, 2012. Retrieved May 12, 2011.
  4. ^ "1974 Hugo Awards". The Hugo Awards. July 26, 2007. Archived from the original on August 11, 2019. Retrieved May 12, 2011.
  5. ^ a b Le Guinn, Ursula K. (2012). The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin. Volume Two: Outer Space, Inner Lands. Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press. p. iv. ISBN 9781618730350.
  6. ^ a b Kennedy, X.J., and Dana Gioia (ed.): An Introduction to Fiction, 8th ed., page 274. Longman, 2004. ISBN 0-321-08531-0.
  7. ^ James, William. "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life Archived March 28, 2007, at the Wayback Machine". April 1891.
  8. ^ Anders, Charlie Jane (July 24, 2015). "Ursula K. Le Guin, Fyodor Dovstoevsky, and the Snuggly Comfort of Evil". Gizmodo. Retrieved March 24, 2024.
  9. ^ "Title: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Archived from the original on August 19, 2018. Retrieved September 25, 2009.
  10. ^ Le Guin, Ursula K. 1993, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Creative Education, ISBN 978-0-88682501-0.
  11. ^ Le Guin, Ursula K. 2014, The Unreal and The Real 2, Gollancz, ISBN 978-1-47320285-6.
  12. ^ Cryer, Hirun (September 17, 2021). "The making of Dishonored: Death Of The Outsider, and how Arkane killed a god". Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Archived from the original on March 23, 2023. Retrieved June 15, 2022.
  13. ^ Lough, Chris (November 19, 2015). "Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" is Beautiful in Map Form". Archived from the original on June 15, 2022. Retrieved June 15, 2022.
  14. ^ "The Correlation Between 'The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas' by Ursula K. Le Guin and BTS' Theory | Channel-K". Channel Korea. January 12, 2020. Archived from the original on June 25, 2022. Retrieved September 3, 2023.
  15. ^ Cha, Minju (2017). Philosophizing About BTS. 펜립. ISBN 979-11-962068-1-9. Retrieved October 2, 2021.
  16. ^ Bereola, Abigail (December 3, 2018). "A True Utopia: An Interview With N. K. Jemisin". The Paris Review. Archived from the original on July 6, 2022. Retrieved June 15, 2022.
  17. ^ Jemisin, N. K. (2022). The World We Make. Orbit. ISBN 978-0-316-50989-3. OCLC 1303669998.
  18. ^ George, Joe (April 11, 2019). "Where the Fiction of Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler Meets Jordan Peele's Us". Archived from the original on June 15, 2022. Retrieved June 15, 2022.
  19. ^ Lacey, Catherine (May 2021). Pew. Granta Books. ISBN 978-1-78378-519-3. OCLC 1298514284.
  20. ^ McCulloch, Sarah Black (September 16, 2020). "'I Want to Argue with Everything I've Ever Thought': An interview with Catherine Lacey". Hazlitt. Archived from the original on June 28, 2022. Retrieved June 15, 2022.
  21. ^ Staff. "An Ursula K. Le Guin Short Story Inspired The Big Mystery For 'Star Trek: Discovery' Season 3". Archived from the original on June 12, 2022. Retrieved June 15, 2022.
  22. ^ Pascale, Anthony. "Recap/Review: 'Star Trek: Strange New Worlds' Gets Thoughtful In "Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach"". Archived from the original on June 9, 2022. Retrieved June 15, 2022.
  23. ^ McNab, J. M. (June 10, 2022). "'Star Trek' Keeps Ripping Off A Legendary Sci-Fi Author". Archived from the original on June 11, 2022. Retrieved June 15, 2022.
  24. ^ "The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik". July 6, 2022. Archived from the original on December 5, 2023. Retrieved November 8, 2023.
  25. ^ Kim, Isabel K. (February 2024). "Why Don't We Just Kill the Kid In the Omelas Hole?". Clarkesworld Magazine (209). Archived from the original on February 7, 2024. Retrieved February 7, 2024.