How does the author use tension to build a surprise ending in "Once Upon a Time"?

Quick answer:

Gordimer uses the imagery of a horror story to create an atmosphere of tension, then gradually moves from daytime anxiety to nighttime anxiety as the barbed wire is installed.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Gordimer first builds tension with an opening, from the second paragraph on, that is reminiscent of a Gothic horror story: it is night, and the first-person narrator hears an unexplained creaking sound, as if someone is walking across her floorboards. The narrator also uses imagery that reinforces the sense of...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

danger, such as noting that the neighbors sometimes sleep with guns under their pillows and have barred their windows.

From there, the narrator stresses her vulnerability: her windows are as thin as "rime" and "could shatter like a wineglass." To add to the sense of unease and tension, we learn that a woman was murdered two blocks away.

We learn finally that this creaking sound is a false alarm, simply the result of the house being built on unstable ground, but by this time, we have been introduced to a fearful world.

We then move into a daytime world of anxiety, in which houses are closely guarded and the residents fear riots. Whites are highly fearful of blacks. The family in question adds bars to the windows, a high wall, and an alarm system to their home, but they still do not feel safe. Finally, they install the Dragon's Teeth wall, described thusly:

Placed the length of walls, it consisted of a continuous coil of stiff and shining metal serrated into jagged blades, so that there would be no way of climbing over it and no way through its tunnel without getting entangled in its fangs. There would be no way out, only a struggle getting bloodier and bloodier, a deeper and sharper hooking and tearing of flesh. The wife shuddered to look at it.

The sense of people needing more and more protection builds tension, as does the violent, painful imagery of the jagged blades hooking deeper and deeper into human flesh. With the barbed wire now in place, we wonder if that will finally be enough. It certainly seems the house has been made an armed fortress. What surprises us is that the very barbed wire that is supposed to keep the family safe ends up harming or killing the young son.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

First, Gordimer talks about a request that's been made to her to write a children's story. Then she describes waking up to a strange sound. Fearing it might be an intruder, she can not fall asleep. Even after she's confirmed that the noise was her creaking house, she begins a story to help her sleep. Gordimer establishes some tension in this first "frame" story when she describes her fear of a potential intruder in her home. 

Then she goes into the story about the family and their own fears of intruders and crime in neighboring areas. As the story progresses, the family continues to upgrade the security of their home. The family continues to hear about more break-ins and more crime. This stokes their fears and they add to the security of their home: 

But every week there were more reports of intrusion: in broad daylight and the dead of night, in the early hours of the morning, and even in the lovely summer twilight - 

They hear about more intrusions and they respond with more security. The reader might suppose that an intrusion is coming, in spite of the family's proactive work to secure their house. The increased reports of intrusion, coupled with increased security serves to raise the tension. The tragically ironic (surprise) ending is that the "security" coil is what poses the most danger to the little boy. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial