Critical Introduction

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” is a disturbing yet masterfully written piece of philosophical fiction by Ursula K. Le Guin. Published in 1973, the piece depicts an unrivaled utopia of joyful and carefree individuals, with one glaring exception: the young child locked in a cellar, forced to live in its own filth. According to the narrator, the city’s enduring perfection depends solely on this child’s misery. As such, the story depicts a vividly utilitarian moral issue–is the anguish and torture of a single child acceptable in return for the unending happiness of an entire society, or not? The very nature of the story leaves it up to the reader. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas was nominated for the Locus Award for Best Short Fiction in 1974 and won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1974.


Kelsey Jenning’s reader response criticism essay discusses how she believes that the ones that walk away are more complicit in the neglect of the child than those that stay. Le Guin’s narrative, use of description, and the integration of audience participation are examined. By forcing her readers to create their own narrative, Jenning asserts that Le Guin puts them in a position to make their own moral decision about the treatment of the child and whether they would choose to leave or stay. The metaphor of the “sacrificial lamb” and its application to the short story are also discussed.


The deconstruction essay examines how language and culture are constructs that form arbitrary customs and preferences in “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” By discussing how Ursula K. LeGuin both uses and breaks from conventions, Tristan Aja explores how conventions of story, culture, and language apply to the text and undermine its overall unity. While examining the idea of total happiness in the story, Aja questions the basis that some could ever turn down the opportunity to live in happiness.


In this publication, David Maryanski’s historical analysis essay sets “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” against the backdrop of the Vietnam war. He focuses on how the two warring ideologies of the era–Capitalism and Communism–might have played a part in the story. He then examines how America and the Soviets used Vietnam as their “means to an end,” just as Omelas used the child in their basement to preserve their way of life. The story also expresses that utopia will never be the end of all suffering. To gain utopia will equal a constant struggle in suffering, even when society perceives that utopia has been singularly achieved.


The psychological criticism essay discusses “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” as an allegory for Carl Jung’s theory of the human psyche and evaluates the city of Omelas as a unified entity. Tessa Winegar examines Jung’s theories of the ego, the persona, and the shadow, as well as his theory of individuation. She asserts the ego as Omelas in its entirety, the persona as Omelas’ public face (the happiness of the city and the suffering of the child), and the shadow as those who walk away. This analysis uncovers a deeper problem within the society–that even in leaving the city, both those who stay and those who leave are continually complicit in the torture of the child in the cellar.


Logan Hart’s feminist theory essay argues that Ursula K. Le Guin’s story sets out to demonstrate how patriarchal norms pollute readers’ worldviews. This literary analysis explains how the usage of a characterized narrator set in the world to recount their viewing of the utopia of Omelas to a crowd of doubting listeners is meant as a clear representation of Le Guin and the readers. Detailing Le Guin’s own history with feminism and how deliberate her writing is, the essay makes the case that the messages seen in the story are not accidental. Le Guin describes a utopian society built upon a patriarchal foundation, and that the only way for readers to accept the perfect world is to know there is a cost that must be paid for the splendor. Despite wanting a world built on a foundation of feminine values, compassion, and liberation from violence, our understanding of the world is so corrupted by what has come before that we struggle to accept what could be.

Our individual analyses of such a clearly controversial and emotional story revealed many different perspectives on Ursula K Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” We had the opportunity to fully engage and grapple with this short story in order to uncover the meanings that can only be found through deep analysis. Much of literature is the same. We hope that through this publication, we can inspire both ourselves and others to keep looking beyond the superficial to find true meaning, whatever that may be.


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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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