Study Guide
Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"

Note: For this Study Guide to be useful, you will need to print it out.  But if you plan to print this out from one of the KSU public computer labs, be sure first to go into the File menu, choose "Page Setup," and click on "Black Type."  This will ensure that text in color prints out (in black) instead of coming out blank.

Plan on reading the story three times before you undertake to write on it.  Devote your first reading just to finding out what happens.  

But as you do this, be asking yourself what you find yourself feeling as you discover what transpires. 

It would also be a good idea to take special note of the things the author arranges for the narrator to do that seem to have the function of piqueing the curiosity of the reader.

One way to do this is, as you read, to enter notations in the margins of the text to make is easy for you to locate places where

Take this as a prompting to ask yourself why the narrator is determined to have things just this way.

Note, though, that even in these cases the narrator gives us limits within which this freedom is supposed to be exercised.  Why, evidently, are these limits important, for defining precisely the sort of case she is trying to get us to think about?  And why are the alternatives within this limitation not essential?

Note that I am referring here to what the narrator evidently thinks about the agreements that constitute her and her readers as "us."  You may come across places where you find yourself strained to accept her assumption that you share her notions.  If you do, just add a question mark to that W or U.

Do not read further in this study guide until you have finished your first reading.

Before undertaking your second reading, do some reflecting on the places you tagged with the marginalia you entered during your first reading. 

Note that the author has designed the narrator as sort of "in the process of" thinking out the details of the situation for herself.  That is, the fiction that the author has cooked up includes the presentation of the narrator herself as uncertain, at the outset, of exactly what she wants her hearers (readers) to posit as specifically "the case" about Omelas.  At the same time, she must have some more abstract and general schema in mind; otherwise she would not know how to go about directing us to construct our picture of what it is we are going to be asked to think about.  It is the tension between her sense of  "us" and here sense of  "them," evidently, that prompts her to intervene with explicit directions to prevent us from going astray in constructing for contemplation the sort of case she evidently has in mind.

So:  guided by the marginal notations you entered during your first reading, take some notes on your reflections on the following question:  what seems to be the "recipe" that is guiding the narrator's groping attempts to lead the reader to formulate an hypothetical society of the sort she is evidently in the process of formulating for herself? 

Are there some "postulates" you can detect that seem to govern the decisions the narrator is making about what we need to put in, what we need to leave out, and what we can imagine as we please?

What are the tendencies in us that the narrator anticipates might lead us astray in imagining the case she is determined to get us contemplate?  What stereotypes (that we are tempted to call upon) does she find she has to contend with?

Now undertake your second reading of the story.  First, though, ponder carefully the axial paragraphs #7 and #13.  Do you notice something striking about the assumptions they make about what "you" will find harder to believe and easier to believe, and thus about what might make something already imagined as easier to believe?  When you have read up through paragraph #13, don't forget to go back and ask yourself:

Do not read further in this study guide until you have finished your second reading.

Begin your third reading, by looking again at the last of the axial paragraphs, #13.  But this time, consider its final clause.

I wager that, under the force of your revulsion at what you learned in #8, you would be inclined (as I was) to identify with those who leave Omelas.  But the narrator professes to find this "quite incredible" (i.e., impossible for us to "believe," though she assures us that it is to be understood as "fact").

What, supposedly, is "incredible" (for us, now that we've thought our way this far) about these individuals' leaving Omelas?

This is clearly a challenge, from the author to the reader, to discover whether you are among what the narrator describes as "most of us" or whether you are among what the narrator concedes as a bare possibility, some presumed "rare few among us," who can imagine what the "place" they are headed to might be like.

Undertake your third reading of the story with an eye to attempting this challenge, as you let the story boil around in your noggin over the next few days.

What would a person need to be able to imagine this "place" (this "condition of mind"? this "possible ethical condition")?  How would one acquire these properties?  Do you have "what it takes"?  Could you get it?  Would you even be interested in getting it?

Something to consider after you have completed your third reading. 

For those of you who may have taken a course in Philosophy of Ethics, here are some reminders of issues you may have taken up in that context.  Perhaps they will suggest angles and perspectives fruitful to pursue in the context of LeGuin's story.

The principle of utility holds that that action is best which, if done, would result in the greatest balance of pleasure over pain for the greatest number of beings whose interest is in question.  In democratic perspectives, the "beings whose interest in question" is generally taken to be "all human beings."  The translation of this principle to the societal plane is that that social system is to be preferred (defended, sought, worked for) which, if realized, would result in the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

One formulation of the principle of justice is that we should render onto each person what is his due.  In democratic perspectives, each person is declared to possess these rights equally, and among these is the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and treatment as an end rather than instrumentally, as a mere means to someone else's happiness (in the manner of slaves, lackeys, domestic animals, etc.)

Are these principles consistent?  Or do we have to choose between them?  If we have to choose, which have (say) the Omelans opted for?  Which have the People of the United States evidently chosen?  Is this what they think they have chosen?  If they were carefully to reflect, is this what they would choose?  What sort of folks would they define themselves to be by the choice they do make?  by the choice they would make?  (Note that these can be the same or different, depending on your view of "us.")

  Go to the Writing Assignment on this story.

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   Contents copyright 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

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  This page last updated 15 February 2000.