What are the main themes in the short story, "Once Upon A Time" by Nadine Gordimer?

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

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I sense that there are two dominant themes that arise from Gordimer's work.  The first would be the fear of "the other."  The family's drive to protect themselves and essentially shield themselves from the outside world represents an inherent fear of that which is unknown.  This fear is the driving force behind inwardly drawn communities and also represents a large and underlying rationale of apartheid in Gordimer's own native South Africa.  The attitudes of the family help to develop this theme of a fear of that which is unknown or misunderstood.  The tragic condition of the family at the end, resulting the death of their child, is a result of this fear.  Another theme in the work is the idea of the dualistic and reciprocal nature of creation and destruction.  This holds the idea that each act of creation is an inevitable step towards destruction.  The family seeks to create a "perfect" solution to their fear of the outside world.  In barricading themselves off, they feel they have "the answer."  However, with each advancing step in this vein, they actually move a step closer to destruction and terror, as they move farther away from rationality and understanding and closer to a domain where destruction is the only logical end.

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andrewnightingale | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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The themes in the story are informed by irony and are firstly, the folly of irrational fear and secondly, the dangers inherent in protectionism and exclusion.

In the introductory section, the speaker is overwhelmed by her fear of, what she believes, are criminal elements attempting to invade her house. She hears a variety of sounds and wrongly assumes that these are caused by those who mean her harm. She is anxious and filled with trepidation and becomes a victim of her own fear.

I was staring at the door, making it out in my mind rather than seeing it, in the dark. I lay quite still a victim already the arrhythmia of my heart was fleeing, knocking this way and that against its body-cage. How finely tuned the senses are, just out of rest, sleep! I could never listen intently as that in the distractions of the day, I was reading every faintest sound, identifying and classifying its possible threat.

She imagines all kinds of horrors but eventually realizes that her fear is unfounded, for there is a simple, rational explanation for the noises she hears - it is but a geological shift that has brought about a slight movement in her old house, causing the sounds.

The speaker is, however, so unnerved by the experience that she finds it difficult to sleep and tells herself a story, with an ironically discomforting theme, far removed from a normal bedtime story, to fall asleep.

The family in the main story, commit to all manners of protection to ensure their safety and thus further isolate themselves from the world outside. They seek to create a perfect sanctuary.

Next day a gang of workmen came and stretched the razor-bladed coils all round the walls of the house where the husband and wife and little boy and pet dog and cat were living happily ever after.

In their minds, the danger is real. What they do not, however, realize is that by seeking further isolation, they are making themselves even more vulnerable. They create greater danger to themselves and those they love. The point is proven, ironically, when they lose their most precious gift in a horrific accident - the direct consequence of their paranoid desire to be safe and secure.

One could argue that the characters, in both instances, were driven by rumor and anecdotal evidence and that their fears were, therefore, reasonable. The point in the end, though, is that their already existent paranoia was enhanced by the stories that they heard for none of them had, indeed, any evidence or had experienced on a personal level, any of the perceived dangers. Their fears and their actions in the final analysis, were based on assumptions. 


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