In explaining the central idea in Nadine Gordimer's Once Upon A Time, the reader must consider which idea encompasses all the thoughts and beliefs which are prevalent in the story. In arriving at a main idea for this short story, and in explaining it in one word, the reader may ponder the plot, the sub-plots and the various opinions which are expressed and consider all of them within a framework which is centered on the overall picture (or the bigger picture). The central idea will be a universal truth rather than anything specific to South Africa. The reader should ask himself or herself what the lasting impression is having read this story and then apply that to any situation in coming to the central idea.
The story basically covers:
1. The expectations of others who want writers (such as the narrator) to conform;
2. The very real danger from criminal elements on the streets of South Africa and how perception is very different from reality;
3.The expectation of violence in South Africa during Apartheid and the family's obsessive need to protect itself from the threat that cannot actually be identified;
4. The fear of the unknown and the misguided personification of that fear as it becomes "the unemployed...the loafers and the tsotsis (hooligans)" or perhaps "the people of another color." The family is driven to constantly upgrade its safety features due only to its own insecurities.
The reader should now consider what he or she comes away with from this story and put all this together into a one word argument which has global significance. Some words which help the reader to find the best option may include tragedy, misunderstanding, miscommunication, confusion, oppression, insecurities, poor judgment and bad choices. A person has the capacity to trust others but it is who he or she puts his trust in that makes all the difference.
My one word would be blame or accountability because there is potential for good and bad and this family now has a choice to move forward and make a difference or lay the blame for its misfortune squarely on the shoulders of others rather than taking ownership and making themselves accountable and responsible for change.