In Nadine Gordimer's short story "Once Upon a Time," what stylistic devices create the atmosphere of children's stories? How is this atmosphere related to the story's theme?

Stylistic devices that Nadine Gordimer uses in "Once Upon a Time" to create the atmosphere of children's stories include the title, the introduction of an intimate narrator, the suggestion of underground dread, the simple style of the bedtime story narration, the pseudo-perfect family living in a castle-like home, and the allusion to Sleeping Beauty at the end. These devices relate to the story's theme ironically, because in fact Gordimer is telling of very real social problems and not fantasy situations.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the short story "Once Upon a Time," Nadine Gordimer tells a horrific cautionary tale in the guise of a children's story. To create the appropriate atmosphere, she uses several stylistic devices.

First of all, the title itself, "Once Upon a Time," suggests a children's story. This is how many fairy tales begin, and its purpose is to create an atmosphere of fantasy.

Next, Gordimer introduces herself as a narrator, which creates an intimate atmosphere suitable for telling stories to children. She describes a dread noise that she hears in the night, and then explains that the source of the noise is deep underground in the gold mines. This suggests the underground habitats of fantastic creatures in children's stories such as trolls, goblins, and dwarves.

When she tells her bedtime story, she adopts a simple, straightforward style of writing like those found in children's books. She begins with a supposedly idyllic situation in which the husband and wife and their son live in a castle-like environment. She describes the mother-in-law as a "wise old witch," further creating an ambiance that suits children's tales.

At the end, Gordimer directly refers to fairy tales again as she describes the barbed wire on top of the protective wall. The boy recalls the story of Sleeping Beauty and desires to be the prince that awakens the slumbering princess to life.

Ultimately, the children's story atmosphere relates to the theme in an ironic way. Gordimer is shedding literary light on the racial and economic troubles in South Africa, and in her story, unlike in most real children's stories, there is no happy ending.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One stylistic device is the use of the frame story. Gordimer doesn't just launch into her tale but first tells us she has been asked to write a children's story, then describes how creaks in the night keep her awake. She starts to think of a woman murdered nearby and a man nearby who was recently killed by a servant he had let go who first strangled the man's guard dogs. These thoughts lead Gordimer to tell herself "a bedtime" story.

The frame functions as a complex device. First, children's stories sometimes use framing devices. For example, we might think of the Lemony Snicket books, which try to humorously warn children away from reading them. Gordimer's opening also relates to children's stories in that we traditionally connect such stories to "bed time" and to things that "creak" or go bump in the night. And while Gordimer's frame story foreshadows the tale to come, it initially builds suspense as well: will Gordimer tell a scary story or a comforting story to alleviate her fears?

A second stylistic device is the use of generic terms, such as man, wife, little boy, cat, and dog, rather than giving the characters specific names, such as Zippy the cat. The story also takes place in a timeless zone: we are told of generic "riots" but not which riots. This technique of timelessness and not naming universalizes the story, much as a fairy tale does. "Little Red Riding Hood," for example, takes place in an unspecified woods, features a "grandmother" and nameless girl only identified by her clothing, and it is not associated with any particular historical period, just the past.

Gordimer uses the above-noted devices to reinforce her theme, which is imbedded in both the frame and inner stories: that guard dogs, high walls, barbed wires, guards with guns, and other ways of "fortressing" ourselves don't keep us safe, neither in the specific world of history from which the frame story is told nor in the ahistorical world she creates in her children's story.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One stylistic device Nadine Gordimer employs to make her short story "Once Upon a Time" sound  like a children's story is syntax. Her syntax especially creates an element of suspense and mystery, just like you might read in a children's fantasy story. Specifically, after the opening sentences, she begins to use a series of very short sentences, and both the syntax and the diction serve to create suspense. One example, can be seen in the sentence, "A voice in the echo chamber of the subconscious?," and again in, "A sound." We further see the short syntax in, "I listened," and, "Again: the creaking." Combined with the diction choices of "voice," "echo," "sound," and "creaking," we see that these short sentences add the sense of mystery, giving the reader the impression that the author is being invaded by something, possibly supernatural, like an elf or goblin.

A second stylistic device Gordimer employs to make her story read similarly to a children's story is allegory. An allegory is any writing in a piece of literature that can be interpreted beyond its literal meaning. Usually, characters, events, and even objects are used symbolically to portray a deeper, underlying meaning. Many children's works are written allegorically with the purpose of teaching a deeper moral. In "Once Upon a Time," the Gordimer tells herself a "bedtime story" that starts out with the picture perfect family in the picture perfect house, just like a fairytale, but ends very tragically with the son's death becoming a consequence of the family's prejudices and obsessions. In itself, the bedtime story tells a moral about the wrongness of prejudices and obsessions; however, if we couple Gordimer's bedtime story with her refusal to write a children's story in the beginning of her short story, we get an idea of exactly why the author felt disinclined to write a children's story, what she has against them. Clearly, she sees the fairytale with the fairytale beginning and the fairytale ending as being contrary to true life. Hence, she tells herself a bedtime story that contradicts a typical fairytale in that it starts out happy but ends tragically. It can be said that she is using her whole short story to protest against the typical content of children's stories to point out that they are commonly unrealistic and noneducational. Therefore, her entire short story is an allegory to protest against children's stories.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team