What is the significance of Nadine Gordimer's title "Once Upon a Time"?

Quick answer:

“Once Upon a Time” by Nadine Gordimer is about a family who builds a high wall topped with sharp pieces of metal in order to keep unwanted intruders out. Tragedy strikes when the couple’s young son attempts to climb the fence and is brutally injured by the wall and wire that were supposed to protect him and his parents.

Expert Answers

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

By calling the story "Once Upon A Time," Gordimer sets certain expectations for the reader. Specifically, the reader expects to be presented with a classic fairy tale story in which good conquers evil. What the reader finds, however, is that although this story has some characteristics of a fairy tale, Gordimer has no intention of letting good conquer evil, as we see through the story's tragic ending. Therefore, she turns the notion of a fairy tale on its head.

The title also has significance in terms of Gordimer's refusal to write a children's story. Remember that in the first paragraph she says that she was asked to contribute to an anthology of children's stories. In addition, one author said that she ought to write at least one story for children. However, Gordimer has no intention of fulfilling this request. By titling her story in this way, in which she sets an expectation for a children's fairy tale story, she makes a protest against this expectation. Gordimer is, therefore, exercising her artistic freedom.

As such, the title acts as a protest. It sends a clear message that she will write what she wants to write, not what society tells her to write.

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

The phrase “once upon a time” is often used to signify that the story will be a fairy tale, the most important implication of which is that the story will end “happily ever after.” In this case, Gordimer immediately indicates that she plans to subvert the traditional fairy tale by beginning her bedtime story with the sentence:

“In a house, in a suburb, in a city, there were a man and his wife who loved each other very much and were living happily ever after.”

The man and his wife have already reached the pinnacle of the fairy tale, the happy ending: where else to go but down?

The story also utilizes traditional fairy tale elements. The husband’s mother is referred to as a “wise old witch,” the alarms are referred to as electronic harpies, and the security company’s name is Dragon’s Teeth.

In contrast to the inverted structure of the story itself, the son reads about Sleeping Beauty—a seemingly innocuous story that ultimately leads to his death, when he pretends to be a prince and climbs through the razor coil thorns. The juxtaposition of Sleeping Beauty’s happy ending with Gordimer’s tragic one drives home the contrast.

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

What purpose does the opening of the story "Once Upon a Time" by Nadine Gordimer serve?

The opening provides a frame story that explains why the narrator wrote the fairy story that follows. She states that she has been approached about authoring a children's story but has so far resisted. However, as she is lying in bed one night, she believes she hears an intruder. She thinks about people who have been murdered recently, such as an old widower who was knifed. Although she comes to realize that her home has not been invaded, the fear of burglary or personal harm keeps her from sleeping. She recognizes from her own reactions how real the fear of intruders is, and this leads to her write the fairy tale that follows.

In this story, a family experiences fears similar to her own. In order to feel safe, they therefore decide to increase the obstacles to gaining entry to their home. They have razor wire added to the top of the high wall surrounding their house. However, rather than keeping them safe, the razor wire harms them: their young son gets tangled up in it.

The narrator knows how potent the fears are of being harmed by outsiders. She uses the story to work through her own fears and discovers that putting up more walls between herself and others will not really make her safer.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is “Once Upon a Time” by Nadine Gordimer about?

In “Once Upon a Time” by Nadine Gordimer is about, we first need to understand why Gordimer wrote this story. At the beginning of the story, she explains that she was asked to write a children’s story but rejected the idea based on arguments pertaining to artistic freedom. However, she composes a “bedtime story” after a frightening experience in which she thinks her home has been invaded by burglars.

The story she tells is of a family (a couple and their child) living a way of life that would be well-understood by any South African: a life lived in fear of becoming the victim of a crime. The story is set in the Apartheid era, and “people of another color” are not allowed into white neighborhoods unless they have a permit. The wife in the story is particularly affected by the threat of crime and violence. As a result, her husband has the security wall and electronic gates that are so endemic to life in South Africa installed.

Despite the introduction of these measures, a crime wave ensues in the neighborhood, which leads to servants being dismissed and fears mounting. The family in Gordimer’s short story responds by making their wall higher and adding sharp pieces of metal on a wire to the top of their wall to make it more difficult for intruders to scale.

Tragedy strikes when the couple’s young son attempts to climb the wall and is repeatedly stabbed by the pieces of metal. There is irony in the story’s ending, both in the sense that the boy is torn and injured by something meant to protect the family and that it is the family’s Black gardener who attempts to rescue the mangled body of their son.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How would you summarize "Once upon a Time" by Nadine Gordimer?

The story consists of two parts: an introductory frame story and a "bedtime story" the narrator tells herself.

In the frame story, the narrator wakes up in the middle of the night because she hears a creaking sound. She thinks it may be the footsteps of an intruder and is gripped by fear, but she realizes it was just her house settling on the "undermined ground." She can't get back to sleep, so she tells herself a bedtime story.

The bedtime story is a parody of a fairy tale. The story begins with "happily ever after" and gets worse and worse. The family lives in a rich white suburb. To protect their possessions from "riot," which cannot be insured against, they take increasingly severe actions. They fear that the crimes committed by "people of another color" will affect their neighborhood. They install electronically controlled gates, burglar alarms, bars on their windows, a tall wall, and finally a device called "Dragon's Teeth," which is a series of "razor-bladed coils" that sits atop their wall. At one point, the unemployed people of color infiltrate the neighborhood, and the wife wants to give them food, but the "trusted housemaid" and her husband warn against reaching out to them.

The couple's little boy receives a book of fairy tales from his grandmother for Christmas. The "Dragon's Teeth" remind him of the brambles that the prince in "Sleeping Beauty" conquers, and he seeks out to do the same thing. He gets caught in the coils and dies before the gardener can release him from "its tangle." 

The fairy tale is a representation of life under apartheid in South Africa, but it can extend to any situation in which fear and prejudice blind people to their obligations to reach out and show compassion to others, especially the less fortunate, and to value relationships more than material wealth and social standing.

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