Once Upon a Time Questions and Answers
by Nadine Gordimer

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What is the conflict in "Once Upon a Time"?

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Ashly Hintz eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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There is an explicit and an implied conflict in the story "Once Upon a Time." In the story, the family is extremely wary of outsiders, particularly those of a lower class, so they build up a wall around their house. This conflict between the family and the outsiders who move into their neighborhood is the explicit conflict—they try to prevent this perceived threat from endangering their family.

However, the implied conflict is the conflict between perception and reality. Often times, our perception of a threat is more dangerous than a threat itself, which is clearly outlined in the story. The family builds up a wall with razor wire lining the top of it. Their son wants to go outside of the fence, but he gets tangled up in the razor wire and killed—not by the actions of the supposedly dangerous outsiders, but by the machinations of the family. In trying to protect themselves, they became more dangerous, because they interpreted a threat where none existed.

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Felicita Burton eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In Nadine Gordimer’s story about South Africa under the apartheid system, the first-person narrator provides one key conflict: that of the individual versus themselves. The constant anxiety that she experiences indicates that her troubles are internal; the sounds and the threat she worries about are more imagined than real.

Another conflict is the individual versus society. This woman and other members of her well-to-do white family believe that they are, as members of a particular class and race, superior to and subject to attacks by black South Africans. Despite their own higher status and the elements of privilege that surround them, they experience their position as threatened and insecure. Society, because it contains people different from them, is a frightening, alien entity.

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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One conflict you might like to consider in the story is that between the duty towards one's family and to society as a whole. The parents of this small suburban family understandably want to do what's right for themselves and their little boy. But the more they become frightened of the world outside, the more security devices they install, the higher the walls they build, the more they are cutting themselves off from the rest of society.

In due course, this will lead to tragic circumstances for the family. But before then, their actions will also have a damaging impact on innocent people such as the black servants who used to work in the white suburbs but have since been fired after falling under suspicion in the wake of a spate of burglaries in the area. The family in the story, like all their neighbors, have a duty towards these people. But because they are so scared by the neighborhood crime wave, they have effectively abandoned society and retreated into their own private world.

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In "Once Upon a Time," a family is so fearful of outsiders from the underclass that they build a high wall around their house and top it with razor wire to try to feel safe. However, their wall doesn't keep them safe: their son tries to climb the wall, gets tangled in the razor wire, and is killed. The wall hurts the family instead of helping them.

The story's conflict is between the need people have for safety and security and the reality that building walls can't keep us safe. The conflict, therefore, is between the desire to embrace a simplistic, "fairy-tale" solution to the complex problem of dealing with people who are different, and the approach that might lead to real security: doing the hard work of making genuine connections that build trust and rapport between different groups of people.

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