Once Upon a Time Summary

In “Once Upon a Time,” a writer tells herself a grim bedtime story.

  • In the frame story, a writer is asked to produce a children’s story. She refuses, insisting on her artistic freedom. However, after being spooked by a noise at night, she concocts a bedtime story.

  • In the story, a wealthy married couple lives in a walled-off suburb with their son.

  • The couple fear that “people of another color” will invade their home, so they install barbed wire on top of the wall around their house. One day, their son tries to climb over the wall and is killed by the wires.

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Nadine Gordimer’s “Once Upon a Time” opens with a frame story involving the author herself. It takes place at a point in her career when she has been asked to compose a short story for a children’s book as part of her “duty” as a writer. She rejects that idea, however, on the grounds of artistic freedom: no artist, she thinks, should ever be compelled to create a work on demand.

After she presents this note of defiance, Gordimer lies asleep in her bed when a strange sound awakens her. Thinking that an intruder has entered her home, she remains quiet and scared, “staring at the door . . . the arrhythmia of my heart . . . fleeing.” Contemplating all the possible options and outcomes, Gordimer eventually realizes that the naturally creaky condition of her floorboard made the noise and that there was no imminent threat to her safety except for the one she imagined. Because she is unable to fall back asleep, she begins to tell herself a “bedtime story.”

Gordimer’s bedtime story is told from the third-person point of view and concerns a husband, a wife, and their little boy. She describes the family’s great love for one another—a love that for them is reflected in their financial security, suburban home, material possessions, and hired servants. As they live out their dream of happiness and material wealth, the husband’s mother, described as a “wise old witch,” suggests that the family should take all necessary measures to protect themselves. The family first follows her advice by joining a medical benefit society, licensing the family dog, and taking out various insurance policies. In addition, the family joins a neighborhood watch organization that gives them a plaque for the gates of their home; the plaque reads “YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.”

The family begins to fear for their safety as riots occur in another part of the city, the part where “people of another color” live. Although such people are not allowed entrance into the protected suburb except as hired servants, the wife is fearful of this outside world of riots, crime, violence, and chaos. In order to soothe her worries, the husband has a security wall and electronic gates constructed around their home.

The rise of burglaries in the family’s suburb causes a new fear. In a neighboring home, the maid was bound and gagged while thieves plundered the house. To guard against such crime as well as to protect their maid, the family has metal bars installed on every window and a highly sensitive burglar alarm activated. The alarm is set off from the slightest movement, even from the family cat, and it frequently triggers other burglar alarms in the neighborhood.

Despite these measures, burglaries continue in the suburb. Intruders use the cacophonous sounds of multiple burglar alarms to saw through the bars of homes. Homeowners begin to distrust and dismiss their servants, which leads to groups of formerly employed people loitering around the streets of the suburbs. Although the family does not dismiss theirs, they do limit the time when their staff work at the home. Noticing this growing trend of the congregated unemployed, the husband surmises that a group of them could scale the gates and wall and gain entry into the family’s home. The wife supports the husband’s decision to make the wall higher, and the husband’s mother helps by purchasing additional bricks. She gives the bricks to the family as a Christmas present, along with a book of fairy tales for the little boy.

Crime in the neighborhood continues increasing at all times of the day. While discussing this alarming trend, the husband and wife are concerned when they see the ease with which the family cat is able to climb over the raised wall. They think that if a cat can climb with such freedom, anyone could. Not sure how to counter this disturbing realization, they take a walk with the little boy and the family dog, observing how other neighbors have addressed the problem. They notice a device on top of one wall that consists of a series of jagged shards of metal on a wire coil. The family thinks this will be an effective deterrent and decides to install one on top of their wall.

Feeling secure in the measures taken to protect her family, the mother reads a fairy tale to the boy about a prince who climbs through a thicket of thorns to bring Sleeping Beauty back to life. The next day, the boy recognizes the jagged shards on the wall as representative of his own thicket, and he attempts to scale them in an attempt to duplicate the heroic deeds of the prince. The boy becomes ensnared in the metal coil, cut and stabbed and torn by the jagged shards. As he struggles and screams in agonizing pain, he becomes further trapped in the coil of metallic shards. As they hear the screaming, the husband and wife are horrified to see the gardener trying to free the mangled body of their child. The cat sets off the alarm as the boy’s lifeless body is brought into the home.

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