Conflict is vitally important in the Gordimer short story. The most basic conflict that drives it is the fundamental conflict between individual and society. The family in the short story are in conflict with the world around them. Motivated and driven by fear of this entity, the family's desire for security set them in a conflict between themselves and the outside world. Driven by insinuations that smack of both race and class concerns, the family move into a realm of almost a "slipper slope" in trying to protect themselves from the outside world. The security system, the gate, the sign, the wall with jagged glass up top, and barbed wire are all physical representations of the conflict that the family has with the outside world. There is fear in this conflict, fear of the unknown and fear of "the other." This is where the conflict resides. There is little in way of positive resolution, as Gordimer's story concludes that little good can happen when individuals are in conflict with the outside world due to fear and mistrust. When the boy dies, ensnared by the barbed wire, with the alarms sounding as wails of suffering as a result, Gordimer makes it clear that individuals cannot expect good to result out of a conflict driven out of fear between themselves and their social settings.
Conflict in literature is an element that involves the struggle between two opposing forces, usually between the protagonist and antagonist. This kind of conflict is external. There is also internal conflict. In this situation, the main character or other characters experience opposing emotions or desires. The character suffers mental agony as a result. In both instances, the conflict is resolved when a solution is found.
The conflict depicted in "Once Upon a Time" forms its central theme. It is interesting that although the conflict appears mostly external, it is, as a matter of fact, predominantly internal. The primarily internal nature of the conflict is more than adequately illustrated by the prologue. The author relates a personal experience in this part of her tale. She feels unsafe and is in conflict about whether she should actually be afraid or not. She mentions unfortunate situations which have occurred in her area that give her a reason to feel so insecure.
The conflict is resolved when she discovers that the sounds she hears in her house are caused only by the house shifting slightly. It becomes apparent that what she believes to be external threats to her safety and well-being are actually only her own fears causing her to imagine all sorts of danger and hostility.
This idea is extended in her story about a white South African family living in the suburbs. The parents and grandmother also believe in the existence of numerous kinds of external threats to their safety and well-being. As the story progresses, though, we discover that the family's fears are based, just as much as the narrator's were, on their own insecurities and a misunderstanding of their own environment and the people who dwell there.
The family go to extreme lengths to protect themselves. They install an alarm system and build a high wall around their property. They eventually have razor sharp wire placed at the top of the wall, believing that this will provide them the ultimate protection. Ironically, though, their son is killed when he gets caught in its blades. The parents and grandmother think they can resolve their issue about protection against an outside threat but, sadly and tragically, their solution only creates a bigger problem.
In the end, the parents and grandmother should have resolved their dilemma by finding a solution to their own inner conflict—their fear of the unknown, their own feelings of insecurity, as well as their lack of understanding about the true nature of things. If the family had dealt with these issues, as the narrator did, the tragedy might never have happened.