What is the theme of "Once upon a Time" by Nadine Gordimer?

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One of the most important themes of "Once Upon a Time" by Nadine Gordimer is the inextricable link between fear and racism. The racist attitudes held by the inhabitants of the white suburb depicted in the story arise from an irrational fear of the "other," or the Black majority. The people who live in this suburb fear Black South Africans, not because of what they've done, but who they are.

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It is long been held in many quarters, among social scientists, psychologists, and sociologists, that there's an intimate connection between fear and racism. Racism can take many different forms, but all of them seem to share a common source: fear of the "other," fear of people who don't look or act like us.

This close link between fear and racism is illustrated by Nadine Gordimer in her short story "Once Upon a Time." In the story, the focus is on a white couple in apartheid-era South Africa living in an upscale suburb from which the Black majority has been excluded.

Despite the relative affluence enjoyed by the people who live in this part of the world, there's been a crime wave in the area. The couple, along with their neighbors, are convinced that Black people are responsible, even though there's no evidence for this.

In their prejudice, we can see a combination of racism and fear. The white people who live in this suburb are frightened of Black people, seeing them as a threat to their personal security and private property. And this fear is accompanied by racist attitudes towards Black South Africans.

Those who hold such attitudes think that identifying Black people as their enemies will somehow make them safer. But in actual fact, it only serves to make them more frightened and insecure.

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A theme is a universal truth about life or mankind that a work of art seeks to convey. A literary work can have many themes. Three themes in Nadine Gordimer's short story are explained below.

1. Living in fear creates a prison of one's own making. In the story frame and in the bedtime story the narrator tells herself, the characters allow fear to dictate how they act. The narrator, lying in bed, is "a victim already." She feels trapped in her room, unable to rest or sleep but also unable to rise up and put her fears to rest. The family, attempting to protect themselves from rioters, murders, and burglars, enclose themselves behind walls, bars, and finally an ugly Auschwitz-like coil. What they do to their property symbolizes what they are doing to their souls and spirits—cutting themselves off and stunting their lives because of their fears.

2. Avoiding and withdrawing from what we fear, especially if it is fear of "the other," cannot solve the problem. The more effort the family makes to escape from the racial/ ethnic group they distrust, the more the problems between their community and the other community grows. The wife's instinct to reach out to the other group with compassion is quickly squelched, yet that is the only glimmer of possibly bringing an end to the escalating fear and isolation the family feels.

3. To live "happily ever after" requires more than material possessions. Looking for root causes of the tragedies that occur in the story, we must follow the money, and we find that love of money is the root of this evil. The family has arrived at their "house in a suburb" where they "had a car and a caravan trailer for holidays, and a swimming-pool." This good life that they have achieved requires protection. They fear losing it, so they insure it and participate in Neighborhood Watch. They can't insure against riot, though, so they go to drastic measures to make sure their property can't be taken from them. In the family's obsessive desire to protect their material wealth, their relationships suffer. The mother-in-law is a "witch," and they are unable to show basic human kindness to outsiders that would enrich their own souls and spirits. Ultimately, they lose their most precious "possession," their son, because of their fixation on protecting their material goods.

These strong themes of fear, prejudice, and materialism make "Once upon a Time" a powerful short story.

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What are the two lessons we learn from the story "Once Upon A Time" by Nadine Gordimer?

In "Once Upon A Time" by Nadine Gordimer, Gordimer intends for the reader to learn that danger has many guises and is likely to be misunderstood, and, in this instance, misinterpreted unless families like the one in the "bedtime story" reflect on their own shortcomings and irrational fears rather than only recognizing the faults of others.  Even though "the property owner was not racist," the actions of the parents reveal their fear of "people of another color" and their own enforced isolation represents a danger in itself. 

Life is full of potential dangers and it is better to learn to manage them—such as the narrator does when she hears her floorboards creaking and wonders if there is an intruder—rather than to lay blame. The narrator acknowledges her own fears when she admits that although she has "no gun under the pillow ... I have the same fears as people who do take these precautions" and she wants the reader to learn to be realistic because chasing an ideal, an undefined "happily ever after" indicates that real happiness eludes families like the one in the story. The unknown element of fear, which prevents their image of perfection from ever being reached, creates the wrong impression and this family seek happiness in all the wrong places, mainly in securing their material needs. The reader will hopefully learn from this scenario.      

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What is the important theme of Nadine Gordimer's short story "Once Upon A Time"?

The theme of this short story is that our fears of other people, especially people who seem different from us, can destroy us. More specifically, Gordimer, writing in 1989, shortly before apartheid's collapse in South Africa, uses her story to attack apartheid as a sick system that hurts everyone involved. She illustrates in her tale that fear of the other not only harms the groups that are feared; it also can destroy the people who react out of excessive fear.

In this story, a family living in a privileged, all white enclave in South Africa become increasing frightened by stories of blacks robbing neighborhood homes:

But every week there were more reports of intrusion: in broad daylight and the dead of night, in the early hours of the morning, and even in the lovely summer twilight ...

When the family sees their cat leap to the top of the tall wall that they have constructed to stay safe, they decide the only way to be truly secure is to top the wall with shards of broken glass and razor wire. 

One night, the mother reads her son a fairytale about a prince who scales a high castle wall. The next day, wanting to be like the prince, the boy tries to scale the wall surrounding his house. He gets caught on the broken glass and razor wire and dies. 

Gordimer, a communist dedicated to breaking down racial barriers in her homeland, liked to quote philosopher Antonio Gramsci:

The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.

This story shows that one of the chief qualities of these "morbid systems," excessive fear, is highly destructive. It doesn't protect families; it destroys them. This family tried to build a high-walled fairytale castle where they could retreat and be safe. However, they were living in the actual world, where reality intrudes and disrupts our fantasies.  They would have been better off to have been less fearful and more open to the blacks.

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What is the important theme of Nadine Gordimer's short story "Once Upon A Time"?

The most important theme in Nadine Gordimer's "Once Upon a Time" is Fear of "the other."

This fear can be perceived or real, and the attainment of the perfect and secure life can lead to one's own destruction.

The family's perceived fear of Black people originates from rumors and news reports which is then confirmed through reports of home invasions in their neighborhood.

When each step in their plan does not meet their need for the perfect, secure life, they take more drastic measures.

Thus, Fear of "the Other" led the family to join a neighborhood watch group, install a home security system, limiting the hours of work and location of their Black servants, and, finally, to the installation of barbed wire fencing that led to the Death of their son as he climbed it after learning about the heroic deeds of the Prince in Sleeping Beauty.

The family's wealthy status and privilege may have served as obstacles to acceptance of their neighbors.

The implication is that fear of the unknown and its associated changes seems so threatening that people will go to extremes to preserve the status quo.

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What are the main themes in the short story, "Once Upon A Time" by Nadine Gordimer?

The themes in the story are informed by irony and are firstly, the folly of irrational fear and secondly, the dangers inherent in protectionism and exclusion.

In the introductory section, the speaker is overwhelmed by her fear of, what she believes, are criminal elements attempting to invade her house. She hears a variety of sounds and wrongly assumes that these are caused by those who mean her harm. She is anxious and filled with trepidation and becomes a victim of her own fear.

I was staring at the door, making it out in my mind rather than seeing it, in the dark. I lay quite still a victim already the arrhythmia of my heart was fleeing, knocking this way and that against its body-cage. How finely tuned the senses are, just out of rest, sleep! I could never listen intently as that in the distractions of the day, I was reading every faintest sound, identifying and classifying its possible threat.

She imagines all kinds of horrors but eventually realizes that her fear is unfounded, for there is a simple, rational explanation for the noises she hears - it is but a geological shift that has brought about a slight movement in her old house, causing the sounds.

The speaker is, however, so unnerved by the experience that she finds it difficult to sleep and tells herself a story, with an ironically discomforting theme, far removed from a normal bedtime story, to fall asleep.

The family in the main story, commit to all manners of protection to ensure their safety and thus further isolate themselves from the world outside. They seek to create a perfect sanctuary.

Next day a gang of workmen came and stretched the razor-bladed coils all round the walls of the house where the husband and wife and little boy and pet dog and cat were living happily ever after.

In their minds, the danger is real. What they do not, however, realize is that by seeking further isolation, they are making themselves even more vulnerable. They create greater danger to themselves and those they love. The point is proven, ironically, when they lose their most precious gift in a horrific accident - the direct consequence of their paranoid desire to be safe and secure.

One could argue that the characters, in both instances, were driven by rumor and anecdotal evidence and that their fears were, therefore, reasonable. The point in the end, though, is that their already existent paranoia was enhanced by the stories that they heard for none of them had, indeed, any evidence or had experienced on a personal level, any of the perceived dangers. Their fears and their actions in the final analysis, were based on assumptions. 


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What are the main themes in the short story, "Once Upon A Time" by Nadine Gordimer?

I sense that there are two dominant themes that arise from Gordimer's work.  The first would be the fear of "the other."  The family's drive to protect themselves and essentially shield themselves from the outside world represents an inherent fear of that which is unknown.  This fear is the driving force behind inwardly drawn communities and also represents a large and underlying rationale of apartheid in Gordimer's own native South Africa.  The attitudes of the family help to develop this theme of a fear of that which is unknown or misunderstood.  The tragic condition of the family at the end, resulting the death of their child, is a result of this fear.  Another theme in the work is the idea of the dualistic and reciprocal nature of creation and destruction.  This holds the idea that each act of creation is an inevitable step towards destruction.  The family seeks to create a "perfect" solution to their fear of the outside world.  In barricading themselves off, they feel they have "the answer."  However, with each advancing step in this vein, they actually move a step closer to destruction and terror, as they move farther away from rationality and understanding and closer to a domain where destruction is the only logical end.

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