What does the cat symbolize in "Once Upon a Time" by Nadine Gordimer?

The cat in “Once Upon a Time” by Nadine Gordimer symbolizes fate. The white couple in the story try to defy fate by constructing an elaborate security system to protect their home from intruders. However, the fact that the cat can easily climb over the raised wall represents their ultimate inability to deal with whatever fate lies in store for them.

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In constructing an ever more elaborate system of home security, the white couple in “Once Upon a Time” are trying to take their fate into their own hands. Petrified at what lies beyond the confines of their neighborhood, they feel that they have no option but to take proactive measures to protect themselves from the seemingly unstoppable crime-wave that threatens to invade their upscale suburb.

Yet it soon becomes clear that these measures are not enough to give this family the peace of mind that they so desperately seek. When the family cat is able to climb over the raised wall outside the house with considerable ease, the husband and wife are concerned that a burglar would easily be able to follow suit.

In that sense, one could say that the cat symbolizes fate. Just as it's impossible to shut yourself off from the outside world, as the husband and wife in the story are trying to do, it's impossible to defy one's fate. What will happen will happen, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Fate has a nasty habit of thwarting our best-laid plans, just like the cat, by climbing the family's raised wall, thwarting their security arrangements, and in the process demonstrating their utter futility.

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The cat in the story “Once Upon A Time” is highly figurative, representing numerous things throughout the tale. As the family is beginning to grow afraid of burglars and preparing for danger to enter their home, the cat causes many events that heighten their fear. In that way, the cat acts as a foreboding symbol or a symbol simply of their fear.

In the story, the cat acts as a symbol also of the family’s vulnerability. Many times, even when the house is locked up or closed to the outside, the cat manages to find a way through the security, causing the family to fear for their safety. The cat trips alarms and motion detectors, heightening the anxiety and sense of foreboding in the story, so it seems the cat acts primarily as a symbol of fear and vulnerability.

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The cat is a symbolic of both domesticity and good sense in this story. He is part of an idyllic domestic order the parents are trying to create within their ever-more enclosed family unit. He is part of a scene that includes a cat (him), a dog, a little boy, a Mom, and a Dad trying to live a stereotypically happy life in a would-be cozy house.

We see how the fears of the parents, which lead to alarms and then razor wire, impede the commonsense wanderings of the cat. He is too smart to risk going over the wall once the razor wire goes up, although he had been used to leaping over it in the past and going about his cat business. Now, however, he is forced to stay in the confines of the house, and he adapts to this reality, sleeping with the little boy.

The animal commonsense of the cat is a contrast that of the poor little boy, who doesn't fully understand how to navigate the limitations of his existence and so gets caught in the razor wire. Fairy stories, be they about building walls or climbing walls, get in the way of the good sense of this family.

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The cat in "Once upon a Time" plays a significant symbolic role. First, the cat symbolizes bad fortune. Black cats are associated with bad luck, and since Gordimer also includes a "witch" in the story, the connection becomes even stronger since cats and witches are paired in folklore

Second, the cat symbolizes the unconquerable fear the family has for most of the story. The cat is able to get into the house despite the bars and to get into the yard despite the high wall. This shows the family's fears continue to beset them despite their efforts to protect themselves.

Third, the cat represents false alarm. The cat—as well as other cats in the neighborhood—routinely sets off the burglar alarms in people's homes. This suggest the fears the suburban residents have are "false alarms." The alarm they experience is not grounded in reality. In the same way that the boy who cried wolf was not believed when the wolf finally did attack the flock, so too do the continual false alarms set off by the cats and mice prevent the residents from discovering the real burglaries that occur. By overreacting to the threats, the suburban residents are unable to deal effectively with their true problem. 

Finally, when the Dragon's Teeth fencing is installed, the cat stays inside the enclosure. The husband calms his wife's fears for the cat's safety by stating that "cats always look before they leap." In this way, the cat represents wise foresight. At the beginning of the story, the family has used wise foresight in fencing off the swimming pool to protect their son and his friends. Now they have become so obsessed with keeping out the undesirable elements that their cat has become wiser than they are. They should be able to foresee the danger their fence causes to their child—not just physically, but even emotionally and socially—but their fears blind them. 

The cat is symbolic in multiple ways in the story, representing ill fortune, unconquerable fear, false alarm, and wise foresight.

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One significant theme in Gordimer's "Once Upon a Time" is that it's impossible to avoid one's fate. What will happen will happen, and there's absolutely nothing that anyone can do about it.

Yet in turning their suburban house into something resembling a modern-day fortress, the husband and wife of this story are trying to do exactly that: avoid their fate. They have constructed a large wall around their property, topped with razor-wire and guarded by a very loud burglar alarm. This is all because they're worried that the riots taking place outside the city in places inhabited by "people of another color" will somehow spread to the upscale white suburbs.

As it turns out, the security measures installed by the family are easily circumvented by their cat. The cat manages to jump over the seven-foot security wall; and if he can do it, then so can the “people of another color” that these white suburbanites are so afraid of.

It would seem that these people, in cutting themselves off from the outside world, are trying to defy fate. The cat's thwarting of their carefully planned security arrangements should stand as a reminder to them that all such attempts are, in the event, futile.

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