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“Once Upon a Time” by Nadine Gordimer

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“Once Upon a Time” was first published in 1989. Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923 near Johannesburg, South Africa. She graduated from the University of Witwatersrand. A prolific writer, Gordimer has published more than twenty books of fiction. When Nadine Gordimer was asked to write a children’s story she replied with a short story called “Once Upon a Time”. Although Gordimer’s title is typical of a fairy tale, the story she weaves is anything but typical. Instead of dealing with characteristics synonymous with fairy tales, the author injects an issue that plagues modern day society: security, fear and peace of mind. Gordmier also comments on racial discrimination (that was and is still a problem for South Africa and nearly all other countries).

The story opens with Gordimer awakened by a bump in the night and cannot go back to sleep due to her fear (a similar situation many people have experienced). “I have no burglar bars, no gun under my pillow, but I have the same fears as people who do take these precautions…” To better convey the idea of society’s preoccupation with safety, Gordimer begins to tell herself a bedtime story. In the story there is a family who is “living happily ever after”; they live in the suburbs, have a mini-van, pets and a little boy. Everything seems so blissful, except the family’s fixation with their own security. The family feels they must put their trust in security devices in order to feel at peace. For a brief while, the family feels secure by posting a plaque stating “YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED” over the silhouette of a prospective intruder. Not too long after this, the old, familiar feeling of uncertainty and discomfort creeps back in.

The family then decides to install burglar bars in their home. At this point it is quite evident that the family’s pursuit of security has made them literal prisoners in the very home they live in. “From the window and door in the house where they were living happily ever after, now saw the trees and the sky through bars.” Conveyed in a slightly more subdued manner, is the issue of racial discrimination or at least racial tension in the story. The author implies that the family may be slightly racist by stating that the plaque on the family’s gate did not designate black or white. “He was masked; it could not be said if he was black or white and therefore proved the property owner was no racist”. Riots outside the city also contribute to the idea of racial tension.

The only black people allowed (in the suburbs) where the family lived were gardeners and housekeepers and yet, even these individuals brought uneasiness to the family sense of wellbeing. “It was a beautiful suburb, spoilt only by [black people’s] presence”. The presence of these individuals bothers the family so much that they raise a seven-foot tall wall around their home to abate their lingering feelings of insecurity. After finding footprints (that did not belong to them) on the street side of the wall, the family lines razor wire outside the seven-foot tall wall.

Finally feeling safe with the new, seemingly insurmountable wire defense, the mother decides to read a fairy tale (to her little boy) about a prince who dashes through a thicket of thorns to enter a palace where he saves Sleeping Beauty. The next day, the little boy (with the precocious imagination that many children have) decides to save Sleeping Beauty (just like the prince) imagining the razor wire as the thicket he must get through to awaken the princess. Once inside the steel tunnel, the razor coils quickly trap and kill the little boy in his struggle to escape.

In “Once Upon a Time” Gordimer addresses the issue of insecurity in modern day society. She also examines racial tension and discrimination that many parts of South Africa and many other countries still face. Through the death of the little boy, Gordimer wanted to show us that fear (not what we are necessarily afraid of) is what inevitably will do us in. On a lighter note, I think Gordimer also wrote this fairy tale to scoff at the person who had the audaciousness to tell her what she should write.

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