What symbols appear in "Once upon a Time" by Nadine Gordimer?

Various symbols appear in "Once upon a Time" by Nadine Gordimer. The young boy is a symbol of innocence, which is eventually lost to his parents' efforts of division. The coil of wire is symbolic of apartheid itself, demonstrating the deadly and violent implications for those on both sides of this symbolic fence.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In order to fully appreciate the symbolism in "Once Upon a Time," it is important to place this work in its historical context. Nadine Gordimer grew up in South Africa during the country's apartheid era. The daughter of Jewish immigrants, Gordimer was strongly opposed to the racism around...

See
This Answer Now

Start your subscription to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your Subscription

In order to fully appreciate the symbolism in "Once Upon a Time," it is important to place this work in its historical context. Nadine Gordimer grew up in South Africa during the country's apartheid era. The daughter of Jewish immigrants, Gordimer was strongly opposed to the racism around her and made this the focus of much of her writing.

In "Once Upon a Time," Gordimer rejects the notion of an idyllic bedtime story and instead tells a story of her own experience. This story is the story of South Africa, where the lines of racism were drawn and white supremacy was celebrated.

The phrase "happily ever after" is repeated numerous times throughout the story, symbolizing the superficial sense of happiness that the family constructs their lives around. Of course, the phrase is juxtaposed with other images, such as windows that are eventually covered with bars, and later with the coils that are installed around the family's home. This repetitive and ironic symbolism demonstrates the façade of happiness which the couple constructs; they are determined to maintain their lifestyle even if they inflict death on people who dare to cross the lines they create.

The coil of wire which the couple places around their home symbolizes apartheid itself. The wire is described in vividly destructive terms:

It consisted of a continuous coil of stiff and shining metal serrated into jagged blades, so that there would be no way of climbing over it and no way through its tunnel without getting entangled in its fangs. There would be no way out, only a struggle getting bloodier and bloodier, a deeper and sharper hooking and tearing of flesh.

Like the wire, apartheid functions to destroy lives, tearing people and bodies apart with its hooks and snares. Apartheid is violent and destructive, and it is dangerous on both sides of the "fence." While the couple believe themselves safely hidden away on the "proper" side of the fence, they fail to realize that their son is at risk because of the fence they have constructed.

The boy is symbolic of innocence. He enjoys the world around him, playing games with the increasingly deadly fortifications. He has no sense of the danger he is supposed to feel. Instead, he runs ahead of his parents on their walks and enjoys creative games with his friends. The boy is full of imagination and energy, and he doesn't exist in the same world of fear which dominates his parents' efforts.

At Christmas, the boy is given a book of fairy tales. This book is symbolic of the couple's disillusionment with the world around them. They are living a fairy tale every day, determined to believe that they can both be a part of and separate from the suffering around them. They refuse to leave the community where they have to first install a gate, and then bars, and then, later, a deadly wire to keep out people whom they have deemed unworthy. They also believe that they can live "happily ever after" in the midst of constant fear and surveillance. The book of fairy tales is the young son's impetus for choosing to scale his parents' deadly divide, and he dies because of those efforts.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Gordimer’s story is a kind of children’s story gone wrong. In that sense, we can understand much of what happens in symbolic terms:

The suburb the family lives in is symbolic of a kind of fairy kingdom; the story begins where most fairy tales end, with living happily ever after, but in this case, the gradual transformation of the suburb into a kind of concentration camp is symbolic of a kind of reverse fairy tale logic.

The boy is symbolic of the protagonist of a fairy tale; the story ends with his imagining himself as the Prince from Sleeping Beauty, but far from rescuing the princess, he instead is caught in the razor wire that tops the garden wall. It’s ironic that the thing that is supposed to protect their possessions (the wire) ultimately harms their most prized possession (the boy) through a fantasy about escape.

The cat is symbolic of a kind of existence free from the race and economic inequities that cause the adults to live in fear. Unlike the little boy, the cat is smart enough to stay away from the razor wire.

The mother in law, or the “wise old witch” who constantly recommends ever greater security precautions, is a figure of the “wicked stepmother” character from fairy tales, in that she seems sympathetic but her advice only serves to make things worse. To the extent that she advocates for “common sense” precautions against robbers, she also comes to represent racism and apartheid.

Gordimer’s story as a whole is symbolic of a kind of literary production which she rejects at the very start of her text, when she rejects the notion that every writer “ought” to write at least one children’s story. The story she does write is a kind of negation of the children’s story genre; in this fairy tale, reality intrudes, and the assumption is that the characters will live unhappily ever after as a result.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Nadine Gordimer's short story is brimming with symbolism. Here are some of the symbols and what they stand for.

The gold mine: In the frame story, the gold mine under the narrator's home that causes her house to shift and creak represents the stirrings of the "underclass" in the exploitative social system of apartheid. The white elitist culture is about to come crashing down due to the "uneasy strain" on South Africa's social fabric.

The wise old witch: The mother-in-law can stand for the political regime that promotes apartheid or for any influence that fosters racial or ethnic prejudice.

The walls, bars, and Dragon's Teeth: These barriers symbolize how fear produces isolation that creates a prison for the one who fears. The family first encloses themselves in a wall, then imprisons themselves behind bars, and finally confines themselves to a concentration camp. 

The cat: The cat represents the creeping fear of the "other" that cannot be resolved. The cat manages to get over the wall and through the bars. At the end of the story, the cat represents foresight: It knows to look before it leaps, which is more than the humans know. The parents have not anticipated how their fear and prejudice will destroy the future. 

The burglar alarms: These are most known for going off without good reason, showing that the fear the family has of "people of another color" is nothing but a "false alarm."

The son: The little boy represents the future, which the parents sacrifice to their fear. He also represents what is truly valuable as opposed to the material goods the parents try to insure from loss. They have become so focused on protecting their wealth and position in society that they neglect what is most important in life: connection to others, compassion, and love.

These are some of the symbols Gordimer weaves into her thought-provoking short story.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team