‘‘Once Upon a Time’’ is a short story in two parts; the first part is a first-person account by the narrator, who may or may not be read as Gordimer herself, explaining how she came to write the story that follows. She explains that she has been asked to write a story for children to be collected with others in an anthology, but that she has refused the request, explaining to the editor, ‘‘I don’t write children’s stories.’’
However, as she continues to address the reader she reveals that she was awakened the previous night by a noise. She lay awake for a time, analyzing every faint sound and shadow, wondering whether she was hearing the footsteps of a burglar. She does not have bars on her windows, she says, but she is not without fear, and there have been reports of violent crimes in her neighborhood. Being compelled to lie awake in fear made her ‘‘a victim already,’’ she says. Finally, she realized that what she was hearing was simply her house settling. Thousands of feet beneath her house is a gold mine, and when the rock faces underground occasionally break off, it sends shudders through the earth. She wonders whether what she heard was a collapse that trapped and killed a crew of miners. Unable to get back to sleep, she says, ‘‘I began to tell myself a story; a bedtime story.’’
The bedtime story begins in the language of a fairy tale: ‘‘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 nameless couple have a young son, a cat and a dog, and the stereotypical white suburban lifestyle, with a swimming pool and a camper, a housemaid and a part-time gardener. They belong to the local Neighborhood Watch group and have a brick wall around their yard with a sign on the gate reading ‘‘YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.’’ Apparently, their greatest fear is of the ‘‘people of another colour’’ who live outside the suburb. These people are kept out of the neighborhood except when they come to work as housemaids and gardeners, but there have been riots where they live, and the couple’s homeowner’s insurance covers them against the risks of fire, flood, and theft, but not against riot damage.
The husband feels secure in their home, but the wife worries that ‘‘such people’’ will come to their home and swarm in, so the husband has electronic gates installed. Their son and his friends, typically imaginative boys, enjoy making the walkie-talkie attached to the gates part of their games of cops and robbers. But after one of the neighbors is burglarized, the couple’s housemaid begs the husband to increase security further, and at his wife’s insistence he has bars put across the windows and installs burglar alarms. The neighbors have also installed alarms, and at night, when the boy’s cat tries to climb in the window, it sets off a chain reaction of alarms. The residents, however, have become accustomed to the sounds of alarms in the night, and because they no longer notice the noise it is easier for burglars to break in, which in turn makes everyone more fearful.
As unemployment rises, more of ‘‘these people’’ begin spending time in the suburb, looking for work or for shelter. The wife, feeling sorry for them, brings them tea and bread, but this time it is the husband who becomes suspicious, fearing that the people the wife is feeding will come back and rob them. The worry the couple feels, it should be noted, is not without merit. Throughout the story there runs a thread of glimpses of violence and crime; every action the family takes to increase security is a reaction to learning of a new break-in or riot or killing. The husband’s mother, called a ‘‘wise old witch,’’ gives the family a Christmas present of money to make their brick wall higher, and she gives the boy a Space Man suit and a book of fairy tales. Now, when the husband and wife go for evening walks with the dog, they no longer appreciate their neighbors’ gardens; instead, they spend the time comparing the variety of barricades. Fearful when they notice the cat’s ability to scale the wall, they decide to have rolls of razor wire—from a company called ‘‘DRAGON’S TEETH’’—installed along the top of it. At last, the family appears to be safe, behind a shining circle of wire. Again, the family is ‘‘living happily ever after.’’
One evening, the mother reads her son a bedtime story from his fairy-tale book. The next day, pretending to be Prince Charming rescuing Sleeping Beauty from behind a thicket of thorns, he crawls into the razor wire. The more he struggles to get out, the more he is caught and hurt. By the time the adults manage to cut him out and carry him to the house, he is dead, referred to now as ‘‘the bleeding mass of the little boy’’ and ‘‘it.’’
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Nadine Gordimer – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.