Most commonly, when reading short stories and novels, readers are expected to treat the material as though it were factual, to pretend—even with stories involving space travel or vampires—that the events described in the story actually happened. Readers sometimes describe this experience as being ‘‘caught up’’ in a story. They come to trust a story’s narrator, and they come to care about fictional characters as though they were real people. Critics use the term ‘‘verisimilitude’’ to refer to this sense that what happens in a story is true, or could be true. Gordimer’s two-part structure in ‘‘Once Upon a Time’’ distorts this convention. In the opening section, readers meet the narrator, a writer who has been awakened in the night. Everything about this first section suggests that it is to be taken at face value. The language is simple and direct; the narrator appears to be merely reporting what happened to her, rather than using elevated diction or figurative language that might persuade or deceive. The first section, then, may be said to demonstrate verisimilitude.
The second section, however, is clearly not meant to be read the same way. The narrator announces before she begins telling it that the story of the husband and wife is a ‘‘bedtime story,’’ not a factual recording of events. She uses artificial language borrowed from fairy tales (including the repetition of ‘‘living happily ever after’’) to reinforce the idea that this is fiction, not to be believed. By referring to the characters by their roles rather than by their names, she makes it harder for the reader to see the characters as individuals and to care about them. The narrator wants to use the story to deliver a warning about fear and victimhood. To accomplish this, she repeatedly reminds the reader that this story carries a lesson, preventing the reader from being so ‘‘caught up’’ in the characters that the lesson is ignored.
The ‘‘bedtime story’’ told by the narrator of ‘‘Once Upon a Time’’ draws on many of the conventions of folktales or fairy tales to create its atmosphere of artificiality. The narrator has announced that she does not write children’s stories, and here she shows her lack of respect for the genre by gently mocking its language and structure. In the opening three sentences, she exaggerates the moral simplicity of fairy tales, reporting that the husband and wife ‘‘loved each other very much and were living happily ever after’’ with a boy ‘‘they loved … very much’’ and two pets that the boy ‘‘loved very much.’’ The narrator also repeats the word ‘‘trustworthy,’’ emphasizing how easy it often is to tell good characters from bad in fairy tales. And she refers to the husband’s mother as a ‘‘wise old witch,’’ for no apparent reason other than that the convention calls for a witch.
Of course, the bedtime story in ‘‘Once Upon a Time’’ is not a proper bedtime story, and it is in no way intended for children. It is a parody of a fairy tale, in which ‘‘DRAGON’S TEETH’’ is the name of a security company, and the handsome prince is violently killed. The narrator tells the story to show herself what fear, such as she has experienced in the night, can lead to if it is not reined in.
The critic Judie Newman, in her essay ‘‘Jump Starts: Nadine Gordimer after Apartheid,’’ explains that there may be more than meets the eye in the title of the collection Jump and Other Stories. In this collection, she writes, ‘‘Gordimer plays with one particular genre of the folktale— the ‘jump story,’’’ which is a brief tale with a sudden violent scary ending, such as children sometimes tell around a campfire. The abrupt twist at the end of the story, when the little boy is killed by something that was supposed to protect him, is frightening. But because the story is so clearly artificial and exaggerated, it offers a safe platform for exploring fear and victimization.
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.