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?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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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.

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