Once Upon a Time Questions and Answers
by Nadine Gordimer

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How do the story elements develop the theme for Once Upon a Time by Nadine Gordimer?

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Gordimer uses a frame story and a fairy tale motif to make the point that fairy-tale solutions to real problems don't work.

In the frame story, the narrator hears a noise and fears, not without reason, that someone has entered her house with bad intentions. She notes that though she doesn't have bars on her windows or a gun, as many of her neighbors do, she still has fears. As she states:

A woman was murdered (how do they put it) in broad daylight in a house two blocks away, last year, and the fierce dogs who guarded an old widower and his collection of antique clocks were strangled before he was knifed by a casual laborer he had dismissed without pay.

The narrator is well aware that her society is suffering from unrest as the oppressed black people become more upset at their situation and start to fight back. She feels the temptation to try to feel safe by barricading herself in.

To deal with her fears and to illustrate that barricades are not the answer, the perspective moves from a first-person narrative about the woman's own life to a third-person fairytale. In this story, a family that consists of a couple and their young son tries to ensure their security by adding razor wire to a high wall around their house. However their son, responding to a fairy tale he hears within this fairy tale, tries to climb the wall and gets tangled in the razor wire.

By using the fairy tale genre, Gordimer shows it is a fairy tale—a fantastic way of thinking—to believe one can make oneself safe by building walls. Reality has a way of intruding when we live unrealistically and don't deal with societal problems in a constructive way. Walls, like fairy tales, are a escape from facing reality.

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Wallace Field eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The narrator makes frequent references, called allusions, to fairy tale elements and language.

When the maid begs the young married couple to get an alarm system for their home, they do so, and they put up bars on every window and every door where "they were living happily ever after"; this exact phrase is actually repeated four times within this very short story.

Further, the husband's mother is referred to as the "wise old witch" who pays for the wall to be built higher and buys the boy a "book of fairy tales" for Christmas; she is reference as an "old witch" three times.

The most secure alarm systems are installed by a company called "Dragon's Teeth," and dragons are certainly popular opponents in fairy tales.

The little boy pretends to be the "Prince who braves the terrible thicket of thorns to enter the palace and kiss the Sleeping Beauty back to life." He gets up to the top of the wall and becomes entangled within the terrible barbed wire the family has had installed for their own protection.

These fairy tale allusions help to develop the theme that real life is not like a fairy tale. When we ignore the real-world's problems and inequalities, they do not actually go away, and when we try to protect or insulate ourselves from these problems rather than dealing with them head-on, we make prisoners of ourselves.

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Pauline Sheehan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Short stories rely on a good structure to make them memorable because otherwise the reader will have finished the story without benefiting from all the elements present in any good story. Short stories do not have time to introduce the reader to the writer's style and they rely on a good structure to get the message across and ensure that the larger theme is shared. Story elements include various features, the most crucial of which are the characters, the setting, the plot, the conflict and the resolution. 

In Nadine Gordimer's Once Upon A Time, Gordimer explores the effects of the unknown on a person's outlook. Fear of the unknown becomes the driving force for this family who should be living "happily ever after," except that their fears prevent them from ever relaxing. The characters contribute towards the theme because Gordimer stresses the point that they have normal aspirations and could reflect any family anywhere, making the theme all that more relevant.

The setting may be a Johannesburg street in the 1980s, which is a unique setting, but because of the way Gordimer describes it, it can be recognized universally as people are paranoid and untrusting and some are set in their ways. This setting reinforces that fact that fear and mistrust are often inherent in human nature. Unless people take steps to open their hearts and recognize the needs and desires of others who are different from them, they will never overcome their fears. Note how, in this setting, everything is the same in terms of having high walls and barbed wire, etc. and everyone wants to be the same and, rather than freeing themselves from that, they perpetuate it and become a part of it. Hence, the setting develops the theme of fear of the unknown as people would rather endure the unpleasant side of living in this neighborhood rather than actively trying to do anything about what is causing the irrational fear. Taking precautions against burglaries and so on is not unwise but taking it to extremes is what Gordimer is warning her readers about. 

The conflict in this story develops the theme because it is the reason why the family find it necessary to keep intensifying security. How can they ever be safe when they hear so many stories and every precaution they take is never enough? Even the cat can effortlessly scale the boundary wall so how will it deter a would-be armed robber? 

The plot of any story has its own elements as it gathers momentum towards a climax after which the outcomes become apparent. In Gordimer's story, the rising action is evident in all the steps the family take towards ensuring its safety. The climax is the boy's tangle in the barbed wire and the outcomes are left to the reader's imagination as the "bleeding mass of the little boy" is freed from the wire and carried into the house. The use of the word "it" to describe him suggests a sinister end to this story. The resolution then confirms the family's fear of the unknown. However, it is hardly the "unknown" that they were expecting.   

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