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.