Underlying everything that happens in ‘‘Once Upon a Time’’ is the specter of apartheid, or the government-directed racial segregation that was the law in South Africa from about 1949 to about 1990. Gordimer does not name the suburb where the story is set, nor the country where the suburb lies, just as she does not directly identify the races of the people who live in the suburb or the people who are kept out. Readers of Gordimer’s other work will quickly recognize South Africa in this story because it is by far the most common setting for her work, just as apartheid was, for the first decades of her career, her most common theme. Others will locate the suburb in South Africa by the reference to the migrant mine workers of the Chopi and Tsonga ethnic groups of Mozambique. Although the second part of the story adopts a fairy-tale quality that gives it a degree of universality, the story is clearly set in South Africa under apartheid.
In the story, apartheid is seen as being damaging to both the whites and the blacks who are divided by it. The damage to the oppressed black population is easy to see: they are excluded from living in certain areas, and the restrictions are enforced through violence; their children are shot by the police; they are desperate for work and for food; they are continually distrusted. The narrator reveals these things offhandedly, as a way of explaining the family’s feelings; the oppression is so common it is part of the background. More importantly, the story shows how apartheid is damaging to the whites who in many ways benefit from it. A minority group, living in secluded islands of privilege (their nation’s economy, like the narrator’s house, built on a foundation supported by the exploitation of those Chopi and Tsonga mine workers), they are constantly on their guard, constantly afraid. The death of their little boy is only the outward manifestation of a more widespread problem: While they enjoy their wealth and seem to be ‘‘living happily ever after,’’ they are hardened and indifferent, unable to experience the connection to others that would make them fully human.
The main element that ties together the two sections of ‘‘Once Upon a Time’’ is fear. The husband, the wife, and the trusted housemaid are each, in turn, afraid of what might happen to them, and their fears lead them to literally build walls around themselves. Ironically, each increase in security seems to make the husband and wife feel less secure, and in the end their quest for safety is what kills their son.
In the beginning, the fear does not enter the family from awareness or understanding. The husband and wife learn as newlyweds ‘‘not to take on anyone off the street’’; in other words, the husband’s ‘‘wise’’ mother encourages them to be suspicious of those seeking employment and suspicious of their own instincts in dealing with ‘‘people of another colour.’’ The housemaid is continually referred to as ‘‘trustworthy,’’ a word that emphasizes the idea that most housemaids cannot be trusted. With their reliable staff, their insurance, and their membership in the local Neighbourhood Watch, the husband assures the wife that there is ‘‘nothing to fear.’’ But it is not enough. Although there does seem to be a rising crime rate in the area, the fear seems to be like a contagious virus, passed along from person to person rather than by exposure to actual threat. Thus, the husband’s mother encourages the couple to be suspicious; the housemaid advises them to get window bars and an alarm, and to stop feeding the homeless people on the street; the husband and wife talk in the evenings about ‘‘the latest armed robbery’’; the neighbors engage in a form of arms race, competing to see who can obtain the ‘‘ugliest but the most honest’’ security system. Their fear drives them inward, and isolates even the neighbors from each other, as their world gets smaller and smaller. At first they have rules to keep the wrong people out of the suburb, then they have a wall to protect the house and yard, then they are afraid to leave a tricycle in the yard.
The narrator understands this fear and knows how dangerous it is. Unlike the husband and the wife, she does not have bars on her windows, but she says that she has ‘‘the same fears as people who do take these precautions.’’ Lying in the dark afraid, she feels her heart beating rapidly, and she cannot fall back asleep. She knows what the husband and wife do not—that her fear makes her ‘‘a victim already.’’ Her bedtime story is meant as a cautionary tale, to remind herself just how dangerous runaway fear can be.
‘‘Once Upon a Time’’ reveals a complicated understanding of imagination. The narrator, of course, is a writer, and writers thrive on imagination. Out of the imagination of Nadine Gordimer has come ‘‘Once Upon a Time’’; out of the imagination of the narrator has come the bedtime story. In telling these stories, both Gordimer and her narrator are able to get at truths that can lie unspoken in nonfiction.
However, for the characters in the story, imagination feeds anxiety and fear. The narrator, awakened in the night, does not know the source of the sound that woke her, but she imagines the worst. The husband and wife have not faced any actual threats to their property or their physical wellbeing, and the people whom they fear are not permitted in the neighborhood. ‘‘Yet,’’ says the narrator, the wife ‘‘was afraid that some day such people might come up the street and tear off the plaque … and open the gates and stream in.’’ With no more evidence than smudges on a wall, the husband and wife imagine that they have been threatened by ‘‘unemployed loiterers, that had no innocent destination.’’ As their imaginations expand, they ironically contract their own world with security devices. This is the danger of a society in which whites and blacks do not know each other—where they can only imagine. Even for the little boy, imagination is dangerous. He does not imagine burglary and racial threats, but rather pretends to participate in adventures involving cops and robbers or space men or mighty heroes. Sadly, the adults in his life have made even child’s play deadly. Pretending to be a prince, he sets out to confront the razor wire, with its sign reading ‘‘DRAGON’S TEETH’’ and its coils resembling a ‘‘thicket of thorns.’’ His imagination, generally a sign of childhood innocence, leads to his death.
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.