How is the structure of this story similar to a fairy tale? What elements do they share? Cite details from the text to support your analysis.

Expert Answers
rmhope eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When the narrator of the story "Once Upon a Time" tells herself a bedtime story, readers expect it to be a fairy tale, and Gordimer incorporates several fairy-tale-like aspects into the structure of the story, as discussed below.

Happily ever after: This is a classic line from fairy tales; however, Gordimer begins the tale with the couple living happily ever after and completes the story with a distinctly unhappy ending. 

Magic elements: The story includes a "wise old witch," although she does not appear to have any magic. However, as in some fairy tales, she gives gifts that end up being detrimental. She advises the couple to act upon fear and prejudice, and she gives the boy a book of fairy tales that inspires him to climb the wall, leading to his death. There is also a dragon in the form of the "Dragon's Teeth" wall topper that eventually "solves" the problem of fear but leads to ultimate tragedy.

Good vs. evil: Fairy tales present clearly defined characters who are either good or evil. In the story, from the couple's point of view, they themselves are good, and the "people of another color" who are quartered elsewhere are evil. Of course, that representation is ironic, as Gordimer obviously means to question those assumptions.

Use of Threes: Fairy tales often use objects or events in groups of threes. In this story, there are three members of the family, the husband, wife, and son. There are three minor characters: the grandmother, the housemaid, and the gardener. The phrase "heed ... advice" occurs three times. 

Conflict: Fairy tales have a strong conflict, often life-threatening, that needs to be solved. In the story, the couple expends great effort to protect themselves from perceived outside threats. The irony, of course, is that the real threat is posed by their own fears and prejudice.

Lesson: Fairy tales usually impart a lesson that is important to the culture. This story has a strong lesson, pointing out the destructive nature of fear and prejudice.

Gordimer aptly weaves elements of traditional fairy tales into her bedtime story while applying skillful twists that help convey her theme. 


kmj23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Once Upon A Time," has a number of elements that are common in fairy tales. Firstly, just like a typical fairy story, "Once Upon A Time," is set in an unspecified place and time. According to the narrator, for example, the story is set "in a house, in a suburb, in a city." There is, therefore, no clue to the specific location or time period, which is a common way of starting a fairy tale.

In addition, just like a fairy story, the characters are archetypal. They do not have specific first names and are simply known as the man, wife, and little boy.

Next, the story also contains a clear divide between good and evil which presents itself as the story unfolds. This is shown most clearly through the man's mother who the narrator calls a "wise old witch." It is also her influence in the story which leads to its tragic ending: the death of the little boy as he tries to climb over the garden wall.

Finally, the story deals with "extreme conditions." In this case, the author covers the theme of personal security and fear of outsiders. She portrays a world in which people hide away in their homes and are terrified of what might lurk outside the front door.

Read the study guide:
Once Upon a Time

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question