Once Upon a Time Themes

The main themes in “Once Upon a Time” are fear of the other and perfection and destruction.

  • Fear of the other: The family in Gordimer’s story are afraid of the world beyond their home, particularly of criminals infiltrating their exclusive suburb from the neighborhood where “people of another color are quartered.”
  • Perfection and destruction: Although the family try to live a “perfect life,” the extensive security measures they put in place to protect their lifestyle ironically result in destruction when their young son is killed.


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Fear of the Other

The family in “Once Upon a Time” is depicted as having an overwhelming fear of the outside world. Gordimer is pointed about the fact that the suburb in which the family lives is white, wealthy, and predicated on exclusion. Gordimer ironically implies that the family itself is not overtly or consciously racist, because the plaque that hangs over their gates features a silhouetted, race-neutral intruder who is masked: “it could not be said if he was black or white, and therefore proved the property owner was no racist.” However, the fear the husband and wife have is centered on the supposed criminal element that resides in the neighborhood “outside the city, where people of another color are quartered.”

The family takes incremental steps to protect themselves from crime, a representation of the unknown other. The measures begin with the desire for security, but throughout the story, they progressively become initiatives taken out of an unreasonable and excessive fear that creates a vortex around the family. The husband and wife become more afraid of the burglaries that affect their neighbors; they regulate the hours of their domestic staff, and they withdraw from the world. As their fear increases, the measures they take reflect their consuming isolation, an isolation that also affects their entire community:

When the man and wife and little boy took the pet dog for its walk round the neighborhood streets they no longer paused to admire this show of roses or that perfect lawn; they were hidden behind an array of different varieties of security fences, walls, and devices.

Gordimer makes the point that in the modern world, continued fear of the unknown is not sustainable. To underscore that point, Gordimer is fond of using the following quote from philosopher Antonio Gramsci:

The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.

Such an idea gains greater significance within the South African setting of “Once Upon a Time.” Gordimer is explicit in her belief that apartheid and its accompanying social stratification are representative of “the old [that] is dying.” What will replace it is unknown, and the family’s fear is that precise hesitancy toward a new that “cannot be born.” The experiences of the family’s preoccupation with safety can be seen in a larger sense in how white South Africa will address and understand a post-apartheid world, a setting in which “the other” cannot be pushed aside with walls, electronic gates, or placards that read “YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.”

In the frame story that opens "Once Upon a Time," Gordimer herself is confronted with the fear of crime, her own fear of the unknown. She experiences the same anxiety as the family in the main story. However, the primary difference is that she is able to explain through logic and reasoning the strange sound she heard and the worries she experienced. Through the theme of the other, Gordimer might be arguing that the discipline of shedding fears and preconceptions will be the best way to allow the “new” to be born while avoiding “the great diversity of morbid symptoms.”

Perfection and Destruction

The theme of pursuing perfection to the point of self-destruction is explored in many important works. Mary Shelley’s development of this theme in Frankenstein can be seen through Victor, who seeks to utilize science in the absolute creation of perfection, the results of which prove to be disastrous. In Madame Bovary , Flaubert’s heroine, Emma, seeks to make her dreams a reality, and in the process she sows the seeds of her own and her family’s destruction. Gordimer...

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continues this thematic tradition with her portrayal of the family in “Once Upon a Time.” Situated in an affluent suburb and not lacking material wealth, the family attempts to create a realm of perfection as they live the “perfect life.” They determine that the possibility of crime from the outside world, or their fear of “the other,” is the one element that prevents them from recognizing their vision of perfection. Their consuming pursuit of an ideal world leads to their inevitable destruction in the form of the son’s death.

As a character in “Once Upon a Time,” Gordimer proves to be willing to forgo the dream of perfection, and she understands that living with some level of fear and “the unknown,” whether it is in the reality of the outside world or in the sound of a creaking floorboard, is an inevitable component of living in the modern world.