Once Upon a Time Characters

The main characters in “Once Upon a Time” are the husband, the wife, the son, and Nadine Gordimer.

  • The husband is very protective of his family. After taking his wife’s initial suggestion about building a wall around the house, he begins implementing increasingly extreme security measures, culminating in the barbed wire that kills his son.
  • The wife is a loving wife and mother who worries for her family’s safety.
  • The son is a young boy who dies while trying climb through the barbed wire installed by his parents.
  • Nadine Gordimer is the author and narrator of this metafictional story.


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The Husband

The husband is committed to the safety and happiness of his family. He is depicted as a caring husband and father and the ultimate provider. He takes perceived threats to heart, and he acts on what he sees as anything that would constitute a danger to the safety of his family. At the beginning of the story, he does not immediately embrace his wife’s initial suggestion of building the gates and wall around their home. Yet he does so “to please her—for he loved her very much.” After this suggestion, he initiates most of the security measures taken. When the final measure has been enacted, the husband is confident that his family will be protected, a confidence that is quickly shattered by his son’s death.

The Wife

The wife is portrayed as a loving mother and devoted wife. She is very concerned with the issue of security, and she is the first to suggest that the family begin the process of investing in enhanced measures to safeguard their home. After this initial suggestion, the wife is compliant with each subsequent measure enacted, reverting to a familiar refrain that it is essential to “take heed of advice.” Although the wife capitulates to any suggestion of security, she possesses a great deal of compassion for others. When the number of unemployed workers outside her home increases, she sends tea and bread for them, because “the wife could never see anyone go hungry.” Like her husband, she is caught painfully unaware of the inevitable consequence of all the security measures she has approved.

The Mother-in-Law

Described as a “wise old witch,” she appears only twice in the story. The first time, she warns the husband not to “take on anyone off the street.” This begins the family’s entry into the vortex of greater security measures. During her second appearance, she gives the family two fateful Christmas presents: (1) more stones to increase the size of the home’s protective wall, and (2) the fairy tale book, which inspires the boy to climb the wall and enter the thicket of shards, leading to his death.

The Housemaid

The housemaid is a peripheral character. Although her race is not directly mentioned, the implication is that she is a person of color. She is described as “absolutely trustworthy” and feeds the family’s fear of the outside world. After a fellow housemaid is bound during a recent burglary, she implores her employers to have bars attached to the home’s doors and windows and an alarm system installed. The housemaid then tries to dissuade the wife from giving bread and tea to the former workers who loiter outside the home. The housemaid suggests that “they are loafers and would come and tie her [the housemaid] up and shut her in a closet.” The housemaid’s wails and screams at the story’s conclusion are what cause the husband and wife to burst into the courtyard.

Nadine Gordimer

Gordimer herself occupies a role in the story. In the frame narrative, she is awakened from her sleep by an alarming sound. The sound causes her much consternation and creates a sense of anxiousness about its implications. Her mind races through thoughts of impending intruders, recent criminal activity in her neighborhood, and fears for her safety. After realizing that her fears are unfounded and that the sound is the floorboard creaking, she demonstrates the rational approach that is needed in dealing with the insecurity prompted by the outside world. Through her methodical approach, it is suggested that such a method would have served the family well in addressing their fears of “the unknown other.”

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