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The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ursula K. Le Guin's The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula Kroeber was born on October 21, 1929, the daughter of writer Theodora Kracaw and anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. With three older brothers and access to her father’s extensive library, Le Guin developed an early interest in speculative fiction, writing her first science fiction story at age nine. She channeled her literary interests into her studies, graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Radcliffe in 1951 and then earning a master’s degree from Columbia in 1952 (she studied French and Italian literature). She won a Fulbright to continue studying Renaissance literature in Paris, but on the voyage across the Atlantic, she met historian Charles Le Guin and fell in love. Le Guin abandoned her literature studies to marry Charles and move to Portland, Oregon, where she would find time to write while raising three children. Le Guin found national acclaim with her 1970 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, set on a genderless planet called Gethen. That year, she won the Hugo and Nebula awards for her novel, a feat she would repeat a year later with her anarcho-feminist book, The Dispossessed. Though Le Guin came to be known for her science fiction and fantasy, particularly her Earthsea series, she wrote prolifically in a number of genres. By the time she died, Le Guin had penned 12 books of poetry, 7 books of essays, 5 volumes of translation, and 13 children’s books, in addition to her 20 novels. In April 2000, the Library of Congress named Le Guin a “Living Legend” for her immense contribution to literature.
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Historical Context of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

The city of Omelas is never given a specific location in time or space, but seems to occur in an imaginary universe outside the realm of human history. Even so, the story was written during a moment of political change in the United States. Le Guin wrote and published “Omelas” in the early 1970s, on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement and in the later years of the Vietnam War. As the bright-eyed radicalism and optimism of the ‘60s counterculture movement faded (along with its hopes for political revolution), many Americans found themselves searching for answers to some of the questions that Le Guin poses to her readers in “Omelas,” such as whether a fair and just society is possible, and whether the dream of a truly happy society (e.g., the American dream) must always depend on the oppression and scapegoating of others.

Other Books Related to The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

Writers of New Wave Science Fiction were known to use the worlds they invented to explore complex psychological, political, and philosophical issues. Accordingly, they drew inspiration from the work of philosophers and theorists just as often as from other storytellers. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” is partially inspired by an essay called “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” by William James, in which he explores the moral conundrum that every “good” for one man represents an “ill” for another. Le Guin is likewise directly concerned, in “Omelas,” with the interrelated nature of happiness and suffering. Shirley Jackson’s famous short story, “The Lottery,” takes place in a fictional community that once a year selects a person at random to stone to death, thereby assuring (they believe) good fortune in the year ahead. Like the citizens of Omelas, the characters in “The Lottery” find themselves unable to imagine a society which does not depend on the violent and institutionalized scapegoating of a single individual.
Key Facts about The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
  • Full Title: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”
  • When Written: 1973
  • Where Written: Portland, OR
  • When Published: 1973
  • Literary Period: New Wave Science Fiction
  • Genre: Speculative fiction
  • Setting: Omelas, a fictional utopian city
  • Climax: The reader discovers that the happiness of Omelas is dependent on the perpetual suffering of a single child.
  • Antagonist: Suffering and injustice
  • Point of View: LeGuin defies literary convention by using a combination of first person limited (the narrator speaking to their audience) and third person omniscient (the narrator describing Omelas).

Extra Credit for The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

Inspiration Strikes. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is the result of Le Guin reading a sign for “Salem, OR” backwards. She liked the sound of “melas” and decided to add an O to the beginning.

Coincidental Contemporaries. Le Guin and Philip K. Dick (famed sci-fi writer, author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) graduated in the same class at the same high school. Though their work would later influence one another, the two never met at their California high school.