How is the use of the phrase "happily ever after" in this story different from its use in traditional fairy tales?

The phrase "happily ever after" is used differently in this story than in traditional fairy tales in that here, it is ironic, not sincere. The family does not live happily ever after by walling themselves off in their suburban dream home.

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The phrase "happily ever after," which appears four times in Gordimer's "Once Upon a Time," is used ironically by the narrator, as in the line

in the house where they were living happily ever after they now saw the trees and sky through bars.

This is different from the phrase's sincere usage in traditional fairy tales. In traditional fairy tales, it is a way of indicating a sense of closure. In a fairy tale, readers often witness the protagonists experiencing difficult circumstances and challenges but are then promised that everything will be alright in the future with "happily ever after."

Gordimer, in contrast, uses the phrase to express situational irony, which is when events unfold in opposition to or differently from what is expected. In the story, the family expects that once they move into their suburban dream home, they will enjoy the good life.

Yet what they experience increasingly becomes the opposite of that good life, as they feel compelled to wall themselves in from outside threats. Putting bars on the windows of one's home or topping the wall around one's home with razor wire is more like living in a prison than happily ever after—more nightmare than dreamscape.

The family has deluded themselves into believing that they can live happily by walling themselves away from the injustice and cruelty facing its society. However, as the ending makes clear, the cruelties of an unjust society seep in and lead to an outcome that is anything but happy for this family.

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