Once Upon a Time Summary

Once Upon a Time cover image summary

In "Once Upon a Time," an author is asked to write a children's story. She rejects this idea, but when a sound wakes her up one night, she starts telling herself a "bedtime story" about a couple who scramble to protect themselves from people of color, only to inadvertently kill their son.

  • In the frame story, a successful writer is asked to produce a children's story. She refuses, insisting on her artistic freedom. Nevertheless, she starts telling herself a "bedtime story" after a strange sound wakes her up in the middle of the night.

  • The bedtime story is told in the third person. In it, a married couple lives in a walled off suburb determined to keep people of color out. The neighborhood watch installs signs warning intruders not to scale the brick wall around their neighborhood.

  • Following riots on the outside, the couple becomes afraid. They build their section of the brick wall higher and install barbed wire on the top. One day, their son tries to climb over the wall and is torn apart by the barbed wire.

Summary

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...

(The entire section is 861 words.)