How can the wall in the story "Once Upon a Time" be seen as a symbol?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The wall can be seen as a symbol in a couple of ways.  The first is that a wall, itself, is a type of barrier.  When I think of a "wall," I think of a partition, a form of dividing oneself or elements from one another.  Certainly, the wall can be seen as representing this in the story, as the family, specifically the mother and father, become obsessed with keeping their family safe.  This vision of "safety" is one in which the outside world is repelled, kept at a distance.  The family recognizes this as the outside world is seen as one rooted in lawlessness and chaos, elements that the family wishes to keep away from their own consciousness.  The wall is a part of that.  The fact that the wall itself was designed to keep the outside world away from the family, or keep the family cut off from the outside world is representative of this idea of partition and separation.  This is enhanced by the shards on the top of the wall, designed to prevent anyone or anything from seeking to climb it.  Finally, the wall's addition of the barbed wire trapping on the top of it is the final element that displays to what extent the family will go to ensure that the outside world is "walled" off from them or that the wall itself keeps the family "walled" off from all that is on the outside.  It is here where the wall operates as a symbol, a representation of how alienated the family ends up becoming both from the outside world and their own sense of happiness as demonstrated with the ending of the story.

kmj23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "Once Upon A Time," the wall can be seen as a symbol because it has a deeper meaning. Specifically, it is symbolic of a fear of outsiders and a desire to protect oneself from potential threats. To show this, Gordimer creates a neighborhood in which each house is surrounded by a wall:

They no longer paused to admire this show of roses or that perfect lawn: these were hidden behind an array of different varieties of security fences, walls and devices.

Moreover, many of these walls have notices on them, containing the details of security companies, like DRAGONS TEETH. These walls, therefore, also act as a warning to others that breaches from the outside world will not be tolerated. 

At the end of the story, the wall comes to symbolize the dangers of extreme paranoia when the family's son is killed while trying to climb over the wall. By using the wall in this way, Gordimer makes an important point about home security and inflated fears of the outside world, that is, that we must not let our paranoia and fear dominate our way of living. Not only will this destroy communities, but it will, quite literally, destroy our lives.