In Nadine Gordimer's short story "Once Upon a Time," what happens with the family's baby?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Nadine Gordimer's short story "Once Upon a Time," the author, who acts as narrator, begins the story by describing a moment she had felt terrified one night that an intruder had entered her home. After she realizes the noise she heard was not an intruder but the creaking floorboards, she calms down but is still too rattled to go back to sleep. She commences instead to "tell [herself] a story; a bedtime story" that develops a theme concerning how the desire for material wealth is really only a source of imprisonment.

In her story, a family of three feel they live the life of a fairy tale. They live very happily in the suburbs, and all their happiness is measured in their material possessions: a son, a cat, a dog, a car, a "caravan trailer," a swimming pool, a maid, and even a gardener. They even have their valued possessions protected through medical insurance, a license for the dog, insurance against damage from fires, flood, and burglary, and they were even participants of the Neighborhood Watch program. Yet, when things begin to get unpleasant, such as when race riots broke out in the city, they began to get paranoid about protecting their material possessions.

Their paranoia resulted in building a wall around their property and installing an electric gate. As they began getting even more paranoid at the prospect of theft, they installed metal bars in their windows, raised the wall even higher, and eventually installed barbed wire on the top of their wall. Though the characters felt these devices made them feel more secure, the truth is they made them trapped and imprisoned, showing us just how much it imprisons a person to see material possessions as the only source of happiness. Hence, in reality, the characters did not live in a fairy tale but rather lived in chains and confinement.

We see just exactly how much their obsessions for material possessions are actually a source of imprisonment when we see what happens to their little boy as a result of the family's obsession with security. After the family had installed the barbed wire above their wall, the little boy, feeling inspired by the story of Sleeping Beauty, decided he could scale his own thorns to find his own princess. As a result, he became tangled up in the barbed wires, mangled, and killed. Hence, what happens to the family's baby, or little boy, is that he is killed as a result of the family's obsession for the protection of their material possessions, showing us just what an entrapment it is to place all value in material possessions. The family's obsession to protect their material possessions sadly led to the loss of the one possession that truly had any value, their son.

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