Writers can get ideas from the strangest of places. Omelas, the distinctive-sounding but entirely fictional city in Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1973 short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, came from her reading a road sign for Salem, Oregon, (‘Salem, O.’) in her car’s rear-view mirror. But the idea behind the story came from both Fyodor Dostoevsky and from the nineteenth-century psychologist, William James.

‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ is one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s best-known stories, and it has the force of a modern myth: indeed, Le Guin herself, in her note to the story, used the term ‘psychomyth’ to describe it. How should we respond to this troubling and powerful story? Before we provide an analysis of ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, it might be worth recapping the story’s plot. The story, by the way, is available in Le Guin’s bumper collection,which contains some of the finest SF short stories of the late twentieth century.

‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’: analysisThe Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ takes its cue, first and foremost, from a passage from the American psychologist William James (1842-1910), the brother of the celebrated novelist Henry James. In his essay ames wrote:

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?

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