Definitions

clutch at

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

"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. It is often used in discussing the nature and adequacy of utilitarian theories of justice.

Plot summary

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 an unfortunate child be kept in filth, darkness and misery, and that all her citizens know of this on coming of age.

After being exposed to the truth some of the citizens, both young and old chose to leave the Paradise of the city of Omelas. 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." 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 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 specifical 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?

References

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