Once Upon a Time Questions and Answers
by Nadine Gordimer

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

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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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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...

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Rebecca Hope eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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mercilinekimondolo | Student

 There are two dominant themes that arise from Gordimer's work.  The first one being 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 idealistic 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.