What happens to the little boy at the end of "Once Upon a Time"?

At the end of "Once Upon a Time," the little boy is cut into a "bleeding mass" when trying to crawl through a tunnel of razor wire.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Nadine Gordimer's short story "Once Upon a Time" ends with a tragic clash between fantasy and reality. The parents of the little boy have tried to protect their home with a strong wall that has razor wire stretched all around it to keep out intruders. In the last paragraph of the story, however, the boy's mother reads him a fairy tale in which the prince has to brave the thicket of thorns to reach Sleeping Beauty and give her the kiss that brings her back to life. This romantic story inspires the boy to tackle the nearest thing his environment offers to a thicket of thorns: the tunnel of razor wire that surmounts the wall.

The boy crawls into the tunnel and is promptly trapped by its teeth. He screams as his flesh is torn by the wire, summoning the housemaid and the gardener and eventually his parents. His body is hacked out of the wire tunnel with saws, wire cutters, and choppers, and "the bleeding mass of the little boy" is carried inside the house.

Whether he is dead or very severely injured is not entirely clear, but the ironies apply in any case. First, all the precautions taken by the boy's parents to protect him end up causing the harm they fear. Second, the boy's innocence and romantic imagination, which, again, his parents encouraged to shield him from the harshness of real life, bring about his downfall.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team