What can the short story, Once Upon a Time by Nadine Gordimer tell us about living in South Africa?

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durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Nadine Gordimer is a South African writer who characteristically uses the theme of a fear of the unknown and, for South Africans, a fear of the future after Apartheid in her stories.

In Once Upon A Time, Gordimer involves herself in the content of the story as she apparently tells herself a story in an attempt to fall asleep. She has been woken by a strange noise - which raises fear in even the most street-wise South African and all sorts of possibilities run through her head until she is able to rationalize and realize that her fear is unfounded.

The Apartheid years in South Africa, unfortunately brought with them mistrust and a need to stereotype everyone in an effort to supposedly protect oneself. Gordimer shows in Once Upon A Time that expectations are often a driving force in creating situations and misconceptions which can have the most devastating results. The accompanying neuroses are passed on through the generations.

All South Africans have the same desires; to keep their families safe, educate their children, have a successful career, live in  friendly, supportive communities and enjoy their lives. This is, infact, the yearning of most people worldwide. For some South Africans, primarily "white" South Africans, the mistrust was raised to a level far beyond any rational thinking as "people of another color" threatened their existence.

In the twenty first century, people are encouraged to embrace change but for those who still feel vulnerable, this is more of a challenge that we can even contemplate. In Johannesburg, you will  not find a house that opens directly onto the street. There will be a wall; there will be spikes; there will be sensors and alarms and don't forget the vicious dogs! There will be remote controlled gates and subscriptions to security firms with armed guards and so on. It must be noted that this is a generalized statement and not entirely the case. Neighbors will still wave to one another and children will play outside on bikes but home owners are acutely aware of strangers, suspicious vehicles, etc.

Nadine Gordimer's descriptions of the raising of the walls, the spikes, the increasing levels of security do indicate how isolated families can become in an environment like that. How will South Africans ever learn to respect each other when they live this way. There can be no overlapping of cultures, no understanding of each other if there is no attempt to expose oneself to others.

The tragedy of the son who died from his injuries as he tried to climb the wall thinking he was simulating the fairy story, is something for every South African to consider. The "happily ever after" required of every fairy story lies in the recognition of what true happiness is or true perfection is and not a scared, limited and narrow view which recommends isolation and separation to save oneself. For some South Africans, it brings the saying "safety first" to a whole new level. Once Upon a Time exposes the paranoia that has festered in the minds of SOME South Africans. The recent Oscar Pistorius tragedy is just one example of how South Africans can overreact to situations where they perceive their lives to be in danger.

Even Rapunzel broke our from her tower, leapt into the unknown and never looked back. Her "happily ever after" was in embracing the future and searching for happiness.  

Read the study guide:
Once Upon a Time

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