At the heart of Gordimer’s ‘‘Once Upon a Time’’ are two groups of people: the whites who live ‘‘in a suburb, in a city,’’ and the ‘‘people of another colour’’ who live elsewhere. In the story’s South Africa during the last years of the racial segregation policy known as apartheid, the differences between the groups are emphasized because it is one difference—the difference in skin color—that determines where one lives, works, and receives medical care and education. As different and isolated as the groups are from each other, the narrator uses small details in the story to draw connections between them. More precisely, the narrator suggests small ways in which the white members of this society are more similar than they might imagine to the blacks they desperately want to see as different.
In the first paragraph of the story, the narrator tells that she has been invited to contribute to an anthology, and that the editor has suggested that ‘‘every writer ought to write at least one story for children.’’ The narrator imagines herself telling him, ‘‘I don’t accept that I ‘ought’ to write anything.’’ Immediately, readers of Gordimer’s work are alert to her emphasis on the word ‘‘ought,’’ because so much of her work has dealt with apartheid and the questions of whether one has the agency to make choices regarding one’s own life. The narrator feels, at this moment, free, but soon her imagery suggests the opposite. First, she describes her subconscious as an ‘‘echo-chamber,’’ or an enclosure that distorts. Next, she describes her heart beating furiously ‘‘against its body-cage,’’ before turning to an extended description of ‘‘the house that surrounds’’ her, built on unsteady ground. The sound she heard was ‘‘an epicentre of stress’’ and, she says, ‘‘I was in it.’’ Even the language she uses to describe the sleep that eludes her (‘‘I couldn’t find a position in which my mind would let go of my body—release me to sleep’’) suggests entrapment. It is no stretch to see that the husband and wife—and even the pet cat—also become entrapped behind the ‘‘prison architecture’’ and ‘‘concentration-camp style’’ of their security devices; their world becomes smaller and smaller as their walls grow higher.
But the narrator emphasizes as well the limitations imposed by apartheid on South Africa’s black population. She compares her heart’s irregular beating to ‘‘the last muffled flourishes on one of the wooden xylophones’’ of the migrant mine workers who might have perished in the geologic event that caused her house to shake. While she is enclosed in her house, these workers could be buried alive in a collapsed mine, ‘‘interred there in the most profound of tombs.’’ When thieves break into a neighbor’s house, it is the housemaid who is ‘‘tied up and shut in a cupboard.’’ The narrator is less interested in demonstrating the horrors of apartheid than she is in showing the similarities between oppressed and oppressor. Clearly, the signs screaming ‘‘YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED’’ look both out and in; the ‘‘DRAGON’S TEETH’’ bite both friend and foe.
Though not much is shown of interaction among the family in the story, it is clear that the housemaid and the gardener, like the husband and wife, love the little boy ‘‘very much.’’ The husband and wife show their love by providing pets and toys for the little boy, reading bedtime stories, and erecting a fence around the swimming pool ‘‘so that the little boy and his playmates would not fall in and drown.’’ There are no scenes with the servants and the little boy together until the end, when the housemaid and the gardener are the first to hear the little boy’s screams and the first to reach him. The gardener screams with him and tears his hands trying to free him from the wire. The last image of the story is the four adults—‘‘the man, the wife, the hysterical trusted housemaid and the weeping gardener’’—carrying the boy’s body back into the house, united in their terror and grief, the servants showing more emotion than the parents.
The most important connection between the whites and the blacks in ‘‘Once Upon a Time’’ is shown through their fear. The narrator experiences it first; it is her fear of the strange sound in the dark that prompts her to tell the bedtime story. She has chosen, she says, not to install bars on the windows, or to keep a gun, but she has ‘‘the same fears as people who do take these precautions.’’ Yet she realizes what the husband and wife do not: her fear makes her ‘‘a victim already,’’ even if nothing worse ever happens to her than being awakened by her house settling. The husband and wife are afraid, of course. It begins with the wise old witch, who warns them ‘‘not to take on anyone off the street,’’ and leads eventually to the electronic gates, and the alarms, and the added bricks, and the razor wire. The narrator focuses on the wife’s fears, but does not lose sight of how frightened black South Africans must also be. The housemaid voices her fears: she is afraid of being locked in a cupboard like her friend, and she discourages the wife from offering food to the ‘‘loafers and tsotsis,’’ or street thugs, because she is afraid they will rob the house. Though the husband and wife hear the evening news only as it might reflect on their own safety, the narrator points out that in the black townships there are riots, with ‘‘buses… being burned, cars stoned, and schoolchildren shot by the police.’’ South Africa at the end of apartheid is as unstable as the ground beneath the narrator’s home, and everyone is afraid.
In ‘‘That Other World That Was the World,’’ a lecture Gordimer delivered as part of Harvard University’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 1994, the author remembers that when she was young, her mother warned her never to walk past the camp where black miners lived, fearing that she would be unspeakably violated. Many years later, she learned that her friend the black South African writer Es’kia Mphahlele had been warned by his mother never to ride his bicycle past a group of white boys, fearing that he would be beaten. Acknowledging that Mphahlele’s fears were more realistic than her own, Gordimer nevertheless concludes that ‘‘the extreme unlikelihood that he or I was in any danger in the manner anticipated was part of the paranoia of separation that prevailed, matched each to the colour of his or her skin.’’
So, everyone is afraid, and everyone has cause to be. But in showing the connections between white and black in South Africa—in showing that fear strikes them both—Gordimer is not equating their suffering or their moral positions. Later in ‘‘That Other World That Was the World’’ (1995), Gordimer contemplates ‘‘The Defeated,’’ a story she published in 1952. In the story, a struggling working-class white shopkeeper, recently immigrated to South Africa, mistreats the black miners who are his customers. ‘‘In keeping with my ignorance at the time,’’ Gordimer writes, ‘‘the story makes too much of an equation between the defeated—the shopkeeper… [and] the black miners. … For the shopkeeper and the black miner were, in fact, not in the same social pit.’’
‘‘Once Upon a Time’’ pointedly refuses to make an equation between the fears felt by the whites and those experienced by the blacks. The whites, for one thing, have much greater control over their lives than the blacks do. The narrator and the husband and wife seem to have enough wealth that they could live somewhere else if they chose to. (Gordimer and her husband considered leaving South Africa, but chose to stay in their homeland.) The husband and wife are ‘‘living’’ in their city, while the ‘‘people of another colour’’ are ‘‘quartered’’ outside it. The housemaid and the gardener are forced to travel into the suburb if they wish to have employment, and the nature of the education system in South Africa means that they—as well as the miners working beneath the narrator’s house—have had many fewer opportunities to choose their professions than the husband and wife have had.
More importantly, the husband and wife and narrator have benefited from a system of white privilege all of their lives, and, if they have more to lose, it is simply because they have more. The things stolen from the neighbors’ homes are frivolities: ‘‘hi-fi equipment, television sets, cassette players, cameras and radios, jewellery and clothing,’’ as well as expensive single-malt whisky. The thieves, meanwhile, are often ‘‘hungry enough to devour everything in the refrigerator,’’ and the housemaid fears that she, like another trusted housemaid, will be tied up while protecting her employers’ possessions. A widower known to the narrator has been knifed after refusing to pay a man he had hired to do some chores; the laborer went without pay while the widower had enough extra to collect antique clocks. The narrator’s home is literally built above a gold mine, an important part of the foundation of the South African economy. That foundation, the narrator points out, is ‘‘undermined ground,’’ a play on words that emphasizes the oppression and moral corruption that have brought ‘‘uneasy strain to the balance and counterbalance’’ that should hold up a society. The phrase ‘‘uneasy strain’’ is also resonant, as the narrator strains uneasily to hear in the darkness, and the husband and wife’s full-fledged fear begins with a sense of unease. The narrator’s house, like the house in which the husband and wife live, is unstable, built on ‘‘an epicentre of stress.’’
Gordimer does not suggest that stealing and murder are acceptable or that a wealthy person who is murdered by a poor burglar deserves what he gets. But she asks her readers to consider where the impulse to commit a crime comes from and what response to the threat of danger is appropriate. What good are possessions if they must be constantly guarded? How should uneducated, unemployed people obtain food? What does it mean to be safe? By making the story abstract and detached, a parody of a fairy tale, she is able to exaggerate both the threat and the response, to emphasize the unsustainability of the society that the whites have created, and to raise complex questions. Apartheid was created and maintained to keep people apart, to protect white power and privilege. By highlighting the connections between people ordinarily kept apart, Gordimer demonstrates that no amount of forcible separation and oppression can protect us from being human. It is obvious that people who have no control over where they live and work, who cannot vote for their leaders, and who receive inferior education and medical care would live in fear. In ‘‘Once Upon a Time,’’ Gordimer shows that the oppressors have created their own reasons to fear. In the end, the husband and wife cannot save themselves. No matter how they reinforce it, their house remains unstable and unsafe. Like the narrator, they are ‘‘neither threatened nor spared.’’
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.
Cynthia A. Bily, Critical Essay on ‘‘Once Upon a Time,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.