Critical Context

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Critics have primarily read “Once Upon a Time” as a continuation of the ideas to which Gordimer has remained steadfastly committed. Much of Gordimer’s writing in the late 1980s to 1990s sought to highlight how white South Africa could work toward a post-apartheid future. For Gordimer, literature is an instrument that can help a society rooted in hypocrisy transform into one that is just, fair, and tolerant.

Thematically, “Once Upon a Time” is very reminiscent of her novella Something Out There, in which a mysterious beast wreaks havoc and confusion in the suburbs of Johannesburg. In a review of the novella, Salman Rushdie suggests that one of Gordimer’s overriding themes is that “White South Africans have no need of dream-ogres: it is reality that they fear, and the something out there is the future.” Critics have seen this theme as recurrent in many of her works, “Once Upon a Time” in particular because its characters’ internal fears constitute a greater threat than any external force.

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