Once Upon A Time by Nadine Gordimer | Characters, Summary, Analysis

Once Upon A Time by Nadine Gordimer | Characters, Summary, Analysis

Once Upon A Time, a Short Story by Nadine Gordimer

Introduction of Once Upon A Time

In Once Upon A Time, Nadine Gordimer creates a reverse fairy tale in order to represent her views of apartheid South Africa. She uses fairy tale elements such as the simple language, conflict between good and evil, and the use of a moral to create her own fairy tale. She also relates her story to the story of Sleeping Beauty. Her fairy tale is a fairy tale in reverse which she uses to warn people that no good can come out of the apartheid ways of South Africa.

The language Nadine Gordimer uses in her story is reminiscent of children’s stories and fairy tales. First of all, the title, “Once Upon A Time,” is the epitome of a fairy tale; it is the most familiar opening line. The language she uses is simplistic, the story is full of simple vocabulary, and has very simple sentence structure. The author also makes use of repetition. The phrases, “take heed,” “YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED,” and “living happily ever after” are repeated several times throughout the story. This simplistic language is often seen in fairy tales because it makes them easy to understand. She uses this simple language to create a fairy tale to explain the horrors of apartheid.

Characters of Once Upon A Time

There are three main characters: the husband, wife and the boy.

The Husband

The husband is an imperialist and racist man. He believes in the supremacy of his own race and feels superior to others and to such a degree as to rule them all. He is symbolic of imperialism. He is leading a luxurious life with all the facilities available to his enjoyment. His house is like an imperial castle for him. He takes all the security measures for his family but we learn that it is the security measures that actually cause the death his only son.

The Boy

The son, the only boy is another character who is actually a tragic characters becoming a victim to the measures taken by his father. He is the much and the most beloved of his parents. Being imaginative like all the peers of his age, he is fond of play and frolics. He feels like one of the romantic characters that we know of. He is also attracted by the devices installed by his father. He goes in the tunnel and is pierced and cut up by it in a tub of blood and there lies his beautiful youth mutilated by the horrors of his father.

The Wife

The wife is not a very important character as she doesn’t play a great role either in the tragedy of the boy or the life of the husband. However she loves her son as any would. It is she who says that her son must be provided with all the security against the possible dangers. She is very sympathetic and helpful to the people around her as we know that she even helps her maid servant.

Once Upon a Time Summary

Once Upon a Time” by Nadine Gordimer is a modern fairy tale. It tells the story of a once happy family living in an affluent suburb of South Africa who move emotionally from contentment to fear as they protect and isolate themselves from the rest of the population who are the disadvantaged and poor “people of another color.” Gradually they add more protection to their home as their fear grows. Ultimately and ironically, the protection they install boomerangs back and injures, perhaps kills their son.

Although the story has several obvious fairy tale elements, a “once upon a time” beginning, a happy family of good law, abiding people, who license their dog, insure against fire, flood and damage, and a wise old witch, the author employs several other fairy tale devices in the story. First, there is the use of simple, repetitive language like that in a fairy tale: “in a house, in a suburb, in a city there was a man and his wife who loved each other very much and were living happily ever after. They had a little boy and they loved him very much. They had a cat and a dog …” Phrases such as “trusted housemaid”, “you are right, said the wife” and ”

We are told “they no longer paused to admire this show of roses or that perfect lawn; these were hidden behind an array of different security fences, walls and devices. In this story, there are no talking animals, but there are burglar alarms. The young son assumes the role of Prince in a fairy tale when he re-enacts a bedtime story that has been read to him and attempts to scale the barbed wire wall, braving a “terrible thicket of thorns,” to rescue Sleeping Beauty, itinerant gardener” are repeated many times. Lastly, most fairy tales have a royal character. a deeper and sharper hooking and tearing of flesh,” “. Many traditional fairy tales have magical occurrences and warnings and three is considered a magical number. There are three references to a neighborhood watch “YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED” sign that reappears in the tale. Unlike a traditional fairy tale with a happy ending, the son becomes entrapped in the barbed wire until a “bleeding mass of the little boy was hacked out”. There are numerous examples of this: “And there is another sign on a wall: “Consult DRAGON’S TEETH… The People for Total security” that could also be interpreted as a mystical message with its dragon allusion. The addition of more height to the walls and sharper, deadlier artifacts to the tops of the walls foreshadows a growing negative energy.”

As the family progresses to feel more and more under siege, they build higher and higher walls around their “castle”, removing themselves from society and from participating in or generating a possible solution to the social and economic imbalance that is creating their fear and the black people’s misery and desperation.” and “…under the jacaranda trees that made a green tunnel of the street.

Once Upon a Time Analysis

Nadine Gordimer in “Once Upon A Time” begins telling two stories that at first do not seem to have any relationship. The first is about herself, and the second is about an imaginary family. The two stories relate through their theme of greed and unfounded fear. In both stories she tells of the imagination and handed-down beliefs literally making people become prisoners of fear and keeping them from examining their preconceived ideas about apartheid.

In Gordimer’s personal story, she is a victim of a fear that “neither threatened nor spared”, a fear that can be universally understood and felt by everyone. The object of her fear. however, is misplaced. The real threat is not the outsider who might come into her house but the house itself, with its faulty foundation weakened by an earlier mining for gold. Gordimer satirizes her own unwillingness to deal with the foundation of her fears by calming herself with imagining a fairy tale, in which the fear is also misplaced.

In the bedtime story or fairy tale the plot centers on a family who love each other very much and begin to live happily ever after in a suburb. The husband’s mother, called the “wise old witch”, and other residents warn about hiring people off the street unless they are reliable and trustworthy. They believe that the natives as a whole are thieves and could be instigators of trouble. Gordimer shows that instead of living happily, the family begins to live in fear, the little boy’s pets can not come and go as they choose, and the family no longer pauses to enjoy their walks around the neighborhood streets. All of the families of the suburb are afraid and have built security barriers around their properties. All of these events occur because of the residents’ preconceived beliefs about racial tension.

There is a fear of riots because the people of another color lead debased lives, though any potential riots in the suburb are suppressed. There are many burglaries; the hungry and jobless people that beg and loiter are claimed to be responsible. But instead of providing something constructive to help these people, the citizens think of them only as loafers and “tsotsis” The residents of the suburb are not willing to offer jobs on encourage self-improvement of the people perceived as the root of their problems; they offer work only to the highly recommended outsiders. The residents decide to build high concentration-camp style fences, place burglar bars over their doors and windows, and install security alarms into their houses. They live in constant fear that their possessions will be stolen or that undesirable people will “open the gates and stream in”. Gordimer ridicules their fears by showing that none of the imagined fears result in any actual harm. Instead, she uses the razor sharp wire as the symbol of the real threat.

Not only are the residents’ fears unfounded, but these fears se handed down from generation to generation. Fear is passed down through fairy tales by the mother-in-law to the parents and then to the little boy, and their fears are as imaginary as fairy tales. In fact, the only real injury in the story occurs as a result of the child trying to act out one of the fairy tales. The boy acts as the Prince in a fairy tale, who braves the thicket of thorns and crawls into the razor blade coils built around his home. As the housemaid, the gardener, and his parents try to cut him free, his pet cat sets off the burglar alarm. The solutions to prevent damage by the natives results in a more serious injury of the child, with the implication that the system with its built-in distrust is a greater threat than any individual.

Gordimer’s story shows how foolish people are to work on such elaborate superficial elements to combat fear grounded in racism or elitism. She compares the faulty house foundation in her story to the traditional position the system of apartheid has placed everyone in. She ridicules the building of barriers that do not resolve anything but cause problems and come back to hurt everyone. Through the use of the gold and the fences as symbols of greed and discrimination, she clearly suggests that problems are caused by the very thing that people do not think out: economic repression and racism.

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