In the story "Once Upon A Time," what things does the family do to protect itself and what are the consequences?

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durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Nadine Gordimer's short story "Once Upon A Time" reveals the tragedy behind a family's attempts to protect itself from an unknown and unrecognizable threat. In South Africa, historically, it is not unusual for people to take extraordinary steps to secure their properties and to protect themselves from criminal elements in society. In so doing, however, these people often overlook any other threats such as family discord, misunderstanding and even physical dangers. In the story, it is a barbed wire fence which is responsible for the tragedy, and in reality it is often guns and other weapons or self-defense mechanisms which maim and kill children in tragic family accidents. 

The family in Gordimer's short story who already have insurance, a fenced-in swimming pool and so on decide to install electronically-controlled gates as their first precaution against the threat from outside. The maid then pleads with the family to install burglar bars on the doors and windows and an alarm system. Next the wall is raised but the sight of the cat scaling the wall means the family still do not feel safe so they install razor wire: "razor-bladed coils." The little boy is so inspired by the fact that, to him, the razor wire looks just like a "thicket of thorns," and so he pretends to be the prince in "Sleeping Beauty." The consequences of the family's actions in concentrating on only one threat in its life are so severe that soon the little boy is nothing more than "a bleeding mass."  

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Once Upon a Time

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