How can the family in "Once Upon a Time" be connected to the theme and symbolism of the short story?

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The theme of this disturbing and shocking story is the way that fear can cause humans to act in ways that end up only hurting themselves rather than protecting them. This story presents this truth through the most gruesome and horrific way possible: the way that the security the parents purchase actually only maims their son rather than any potential intruder. Throughout the story, the parents fall victim to this sense of fear to a greater and greater extent, as they hear of other crimes and rumours of burglaries in other houses in the neighbourhood. They deliberately scout the houses around them to look for the most impressive security system that will guarantee them complete safety and peace of mind, until they find the Dragon's Teeth that they eventually buy and place on their walls:

The wife shuddered to look at it. You’re right, said the husband, anyone would think twice... And they took heed of the advice on a small board fixed to the wall: Consult DRAGON’S TEETH--The People For Total Security.

Given the way in which Gordimer writes this short story as if it were a fairy tale, the naming is no accident, as the fence becomes in the boy's imagination part of the fairytale world of make believe in which knights fight dragons. The family can therefore be linked to the theme and symbolism of the story through the way that they seek to continually improve their own security but only end up hurting themselves through what happens to their son. Gordimer's message is clear: acting out of fear only serves to hurt the person who is afraid.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that some of the strongest textual evidence to help explain the family's reactions is the fact that Gordimer creates a threatening world around them.  This is not to excuse them, as Gordmer clearly suggests.  Yet, her construction of the world around the family is one in which there is a concerted effort to show that there is a lack of safety in the world around the family.  Crime is evident in the news reports of events that the husband and wife relay to one another.  There is poverty that surrounds the family, helping to feed the fears of the family that someone else out there may come to do harm to the family.  At the same time, there is a sense of dismay and a sense of mistrust in the world around the family because of these constructions.  For the family, there is a clear fear of being ensnared by these conditions around them.  Gordimer makes it clear that living in the modern setting is one in which individuals must live with the realities of doubt and fear.  The challenge is not letting one's lives become dominated and controlled by these elements, as happens to the family.

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Once Upon a Time

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