Once Upon a Time Questions and Answers
by Nadine Gordimer

Once Upon a Time book cover
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How would you summarize "Once upon a Time" by Nadine Gordimer?

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Rebecca Hope eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The story consists of two parts: an introductory frame story and a "bedtime story" the narrator tells herself.

In the frame story, the narrator wakes up in the middle of the night because she hears a creaking sound. She thinks it may be the footsteps of an intruder and is gripped by fear, but she realizes it was just her house settling on the "undermined ground." She can't get back to sleep, so she tells herself a bedtime story.

The bedtime story is a parody of a fairy tale. The story begins with "happily ever after" and gets worse and worse. The family lives in a rich white suburb. To protect their possessions from "riot," which cannot be insured against, they take increasingly severe actions. They fear that the crimes committed by "people of another color" will affect their neighborhood. They install electronically controlled gates, burglar alarms, bars on their windows, a tall wall, and finally a device called "Dragon's Teeth," which is a series of "razor-bladed coils" that sits atop their wall. At one point, the unemployed people of color infiltrate the neighborhood, and the wife wants to give them food, but the "trusted housemaid" and her husband warn against reaching out to them.

The couple's little boy receives a book of fairy tales from his grandmother for Christmas. The "Dragon's Teeth" remind him of the brambles that the prince in "Sleeping Beauty" conquers, and he seeks out to do the same thing. He gets caught in the coils and dies before the gardener can release him from "its tangle." 

The fairy tale is a representation of life under apartheid in South Africa, but it can extend to any situation in which fear and prejudice blind people to their obligations to reach out and show compassion to others, especially the less fortunate, and to value relationships more than material wealth and social standing.

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