In the story, "Once Upon A Time" by Nadine Gordimer, how does the author shift the structure from an autobiographical account to a bedtime story? 

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andrewnightingale eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The first part of the story is written from a first-person perspective. The author writes from her own point of view, divulging her own fears and uncertainties and expressing her thoughts. The narrative is presented as a factual account of what she experienced when alone at home. She tells the reader that she was restless and could not sleep and therefore told herself a bedtime story so that she may do so, as parents often do when they put their young children to bed. This serves as an introduction to the main story.

The second part is written in the form of a fairy tale and the narrative is written from the viewpoint of an omniscient, all-knowing third-person perspective. The tale is seemingly told in the form of a fairy tale, for one can observe what appears to be the conventions used in such story-telling:

In a house, in a suburb, in a city, there were a man and his wife who loved each other very much and were living happily ever after. They had a little boy, and they loved him very much. They had a cat and a dog that the little boy loved very much. They had a car and a caravan trailer for holidays, and a swimming-pool which was fenced so that the little boy and his playmates would not fall in and drown. They had a housemaid who was absolutely trustworthy and an itinerant gardener who was highly recommended by the neighbours.

Closer scrutiny reveals however, that the author has utilised an inverted fairy-tale format. The story commences with the conventional ending: 'living happily ever after'. This intriguing and ironic twist is used to obviously encourage the reader to delve further - what would the outcome really be if the introduction is so positive?

The general format is closely linked to the style and register of a conventional fairy tale with the talk of a good witch - the grandmother, personifying animals - the cat who displays human characteristics, the threat of evil outside forces and so forth, but that is where the similarity ends, for the denouement is tragic rather than happy.

Then the man and his wife burst wildly into the garden and for some reason (the cat, probably) the alarm set up wailing against the screams while the bleeding mass of the little boy was hacked out of the security coil with saws, wire-cutters, choppers, and they carried it—the man, the wife, the hysterical trusted housemaid and the weeping gardener—into the house.