What is the significance of the title "Once Upon a Time" by Nadine Gordimer?

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By calling the story "Once Upon A Time," Gordimer sets certain expectations for the reader. Specifically, the reader expects to be presented with a classic fairy tale story in which good conquers evil. What the reader finds, however, is that although this story has some characteristics of a fairy tale, Gordimer has no intention of letting good conquer evil, as we see through the story's tragic ending. Therefore, she turns the notion of a fairy tale on its head.

The title also has significance in terms of Gordimer's refusal to write a children's story. Remember that in the first paragraph she says that she was asked to contribute to an anthology of children's stories. In addition, one author said that she ought to write at least one story for children. However, Gordimer has no intention of fulfilling this request. By titling her story in this way, in which she sets an expectation for a children's fairy tale story, she makes a protest against this expectation. Gordimer is, therefore, exercising her artistic freedom.

As such, the title acts as a protest. It sends a clear message that she will write what she wants to write, not what society tells her to write.

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The phrase “once upon a time” is often used to signify that the story will be a fairy tale, the most important implication of which is that the story will end “happily ever after.” In this case, Gordimer immediately indicates that she plans to subvert the traditional fairy tale by beginning her bedtime story with the sentence:

“In a house, in a suburb, in a city, there were a man and his wife who loved each other very much and were living happily ever after.”

The man and his wife have already reached the pinnacle of the fairy tale, the happy ending: where else to go but down?

The story also utilizes traditional fairy tale elements. The husband’s mother is referred to as a “wise old witch,” the alarms are referred to as electronic harpies, and the security company’s name is Dragon’s Teeth.

In contrast to the inverted structure of the story itself, the son reads about Sleeping Beauty—a seemingly innocuous story that ultimately leads to his death, when he pretends to be a prince and climbs through the razor coil thorns. The juxtaposition of Sleeping Beauty’s happy ending with Gordimer’s tragic one drives home the contrast.

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