What is the importance of the setting in "Once Upon a Time"?
In Gordimer's grim parody of a fairy tale, the setting is a crucial element in presenting the theme of her story. Her description of South African society and the rumours of crimes and burglaries are the reason why the family in her short story go to even further lengths in order to try and protect themselves, but in the end only end up hurting themselves in the most horrific way imaginable. What is key to realise is how Gordimer builds up the setting through a strategy of reporting the crimes that others have experienced in their neighbourhood, which impel them to go to even greater lengths to try and protect themselves, but also the way that other houses are described:
When the man and wife and little boy took the pet dog for its walk round the neighborhood streets they no longer paused to admire this show of roses or that perfect lawn; these were hidden behind an array of different varieties of security fences, walls, and devices.
Note how Gordimer's implied criticism of these security measures is presented. Formerly, taking a walk in their neighbourhood involved admiring the gardens of their neighbours. Now, such pleasant perusal is impossible, and the only things that can be admired are the security features that each house has built around them. The description supplied with the setting supports the overall message of the story, which is how these people, with the apparent motive of protecting themselves, are actually turning themselves into prisoners within a prison of their own making. Setting is therefore something that is crucial to developing the message that Gordimer wishes to convey in this tragic fairy tale.