What happens to the boy at the end of "Once Upon a Time"?

Quick answer:

At the end of "Once Upon a Time," the little boy is cut into a "bleeding mass" when trying to crawl through a tunnel of razor wire.

Expert Answers

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

Nadine Gordimer's short story "Once Upon a Time" ends with a tragic clash between fantasy and reality. The parents of the little boy have tried to protect their home with a strong wall that has razor wire stretched all around it to keep out intruders. In the last paragraph of the story, however, the boy's mother reads him a fairy tale in which the prince has to brave the thicket of thorns to reach Sleeping Beauty and give her the kiss that brings her back to life. This romantic story inspires the boy to tackle the nearest thing his environment offers to a thicket of thorns: the tunnel of razor wire that surmounts the wall.

The boy crawls into the tunnel and is promptly trapped by its teeth. He screams as his flesh is torn by the wire, summoning the housemaid and the gardener and eventually his parents. His body is hacked out of the wire tunnel with saws, wire cutters, and choppers, and "the bleeding mass of the little boy" is carried inside the house.

Whether he is dead or very severely injured is not entirely clear, but the ironies apply in any case. First, all the precautions taken by the boy's parents to protect him end up causing the harm they fear. Second, the boy's innocence and romantic imagination, which, again, his parents encouraged to shield him from the harshness of real life, bring about his downfall.

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

What happens to the boy at the end of Once Upon A Time?

Once Upon A Time by Nadine Gordimer is a tragic tale which serves as a warning to anyone who obsesses over something without rationally thinking it through or trying to solve the problem from within. Gordimer provides her warning in the form of a "bedtime story" complete with a "wise old witch" and a "Sleeping Beauty." It begins as a family tries desperately to protect itself from some unidentified source of danger. Each time the family upgrades its security system, it seems that it is not enough and more needs to be done because the family does not feel safe due to such things as rioting and burglaries and after a housemaid is tied up while robbers ransack a house, the family fits burglar bars to all its windows.   

After the family has all conceivable gadgets and deterrents to keep any undesirable influences away, it seems that it can rest easily within the confines of the walls of its house. The latest addition to the security features is " razor-bladed coils all round the walls of the house," and after his mother has read him a story, the little boy is inspired by the very same and very dangerous coils of razor-wire because they remind him of the thicket of thorns which the prince must struggle against to get to the beautiful Sleeping Beauty, in the story he mother has read to him. Without anyone realizing it, the boy climbs in to the tunnel of wires and is caught in "the first fixing of its razor-teeth." Despite everyone's best efforts, the boy is hurt badly, even perhaps fatally, and the reader is left to contemplate whether this situation could have and should have been avoided. So it does seem as if he has died as he is nothing more than "a bleeding mass."    

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on