Nadine Gordimer weaves many examples of foreshadowing into "Once Upon a Time." The frame story introduces the concept of fear. The idea of the subterranean mining tunnels that rock the narrator's house—dark, invisible, and cryptic—foreshadow the ethnic unrest that rocks the social fabric of the suburban community in the bedtime story.
As the bedtime story begins, readers learn the family is "living happily ever after." Since such wording usually describes the end, not the beginning, of a story, readers know the happiness cannot last, or there would not be any story at all. The reference to the parents' fencing the swimming pool so the boy won't "fall in and drown" foreshadows the boy's death in his own yard. The early appearance of a "wise old witch" also portends some sort of evil curse or ill fortune. When the second paragraph of the bedtime story explains "it was not possible to insure the house. . . against riot damage," readers suspect such an event may occur. This foreshadowed event never happens; instead, it is the desire to "insure against. . . damage" that becomes the destructive force in the family's life.
The cat that keeps setting off the alarm acts as a bad omen as well. Cats and witches often portend evil, and in this case, the fact that the cat can scale the wall and get through the bars predicts that the home is not yet fully secure. The installation of the "Dragon's Teeth" fencing that makes their home look like a concentration camp, and the wife's first contradiction ("You're wrong") give a feeling of foreboding as the end of the story nears. Now the cat sleeps on the bed, yet the husband's calm assurance that "cats always look before they leap" makes readers anticipate that the cat is wiser than his human owners, and that they are leaping into danger that they haven't fully considered.
The foreshadowing Gordimer uses helps readers stay engaged with the story as they anticipate a non-traditional ending to this "bedtime story."