Discuss the significance of Nadine Gordimer's references  to fairy tales in "Once Upon a Time."

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that one of Gordimer's motivations in bringing up the idea of fairy tales is to contrast their make- believe worlds to to that of modern reality.  For Gordimer, the world of the "fairly tale" does not take into account what consciousness is in the modern setting.  This is the condition of the family she depicts.  They sincerely believe in their fairly tale-like life, sincerely believing that their happiness is something that can exist outside of the world.  This external world is seen as "the other," something that is not properly integrated into their own schematic, but rather as an object to be overcome.  This relationship between being and "the other" is a part of the fairy tale narrative that Gordimer feels denies reality and does not represent it.  For example, in fairy tales, "the other," in the form of a monster or adversary, is not sought to be understood, but rather overcome or dominated.  In fairy tales, "the other" is malevolent.  The awkwardness and difficulty in trying to understand it is not part of the fairly tale narrative.  This becomes one of the fatal flaws of the family.  The mother and father, and the "horrible" mother in law, fail to understand "the other," which is in this case the outside world.  Rather, they seek to overcome it.  They do not understand nor do they seek to understand the outside world.  The family sees it as most examples of "the other" are seen in fairy tales.  Just like the boy sees the wall as an example of "the other" to overcome only to be killed by it in the end, the family's lack of understanding of "the other," a temperament best seen in fairy tales, ends up proving destructive in the real world.


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