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Analysis, Summary and Themes of "Once Upon a Time" by Nadine Gordimer

Howard is an avid short story reader who likes to help others find and understand stories.


Nadine Gordimer's short story "Once Upon a Time" was first published in 1989.

This article has a summary, then looks at symbols, theme, and some relevant questions to consider.

Summary of "Once Upon a Time"

The narrator has been asked to write a story for a children's anthology. She doesn't write that kind of story and doesn't feel obligated to.

Last night, she was awakened by a sound—a creaking, possibly an intruder. Her house isn't well secured. She thinks of recent crimes in the area. She lies still and listens intently.

It turns out there's no intruder. The creaking was from the weight of the house. It rests on a mine. When something comes loose in a channel or passage below, the house buckles a bit.

A Bedtime Story

She can't fall asleep again, so she tells herself a bedtime story.

A happy family—a husband, wife and little boy—live in a house with a cat and dog. They live well and have a housemaid and an itinerant gardener. They take the necessary precautions to protect their property. They can't insure themselves against riots, but the people who riot are another color and aren't allowed in their suburb. Even though there are police to keep them away, the wife is still afraid. They have electronically controlled gates installed with an intercom system to be sure no one can get in. Their son plays with the intercom.

An Unsafe Neighborhood

There are burglaries in the neighborhood. A housemaid was put in a cupboard while thieves took everything. Their housemaid urges them to have bars and an alarm installed. They do so.

The cat often sets off the alarm. The same thing happens in many other houses. The alarms sound so often that people stop paying attention. Thieves start using the noise to their advantage, using it as cover to break in and clear out the houses.

Unemployed people start hanging around the suburb, some of them looking for jobs. Others drink and beg and sleep in the street.

Securing Their Home

The wife wants to send out some food to them but the housemaid objects and the husband agrees. There's too much risk.

They realize someone could climb over the wall or the gates and get into the garden. The husband's mother makes a Christmas present of extra bricks to expand the wall. The boy gets a Space Man costume and a book of fairy tales.

Every week they hear more reports of break-ins. They notice the cat gets over their wall easily. When they walk the dog, they check out how the other homeowners have secured the tops of their walls. After making a comparison of their appearance and functionality, they settle on the most effective addition.

A Tragic Consequence

It's a coil of metal full of jagged blades. They call the security firm. The next day a crew installs it.

The wife hopes the cat won't be hurt on it. The husband says cats are cautious. It ends up staying inside.

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One evening, the wife reads a bedtime story to her son from his new book of fairy stories. The next day, he plays the Prince from the story, who braved a terrible thicket of thorns to reach Sleeping Beauty. He climbs into the new metal security coil. It hooks him immediately. He screams and struggles but gets entangled worse. The itinerant gardener tries to free the boy but only hurts himself.

The boy's mangled body is cut out of the coil. The parents, housemaid, and gardener carry the body into the house.


The bedtime story the writer tells herself is symbolic for the system of racial segregation in South Africa that lasted over 40 years. First, several things signal that the story isn't to be taken literally:

  • The title, "Once Upon a Time," is how fairy tales begin.
  • The frame story establishes that the writer was asked to come up with a children's story, and it's presented as a bedtime story.
  • The setting, "In a house, in a suburb, in a city," is vague.
  • None of the characters have names, suggesting they're representative rather than real individuals.
  • The family seems perfect and is completely happy when the story starts.
  • The husband's mother is referred to as a "wise old witch."

Allusions to Apartheid

There are many details that parallel apartheid:

  • "[P]eople of another color were quartered" outside the city and weren't allowed in the suburb except as workers.
  • The family lives in a gated community, representing the separation between races. This separation is intensified by the numerous security measures, particularly the coiled razor wire.
  • The people of another color riot. There are police and soldiers to suppress them.
  • There's high unemployment among the outsiders.

Theme: Fear of the "Other"

The family starts by taking reasonable precautions, such as fencing off the pool, hiring people with references, getting the proper licenses, insuring their property, having a regular gate, and joining the Neighborhood Watch.

After this, their fear of the "people of another color" begins escalating. There's no insurance for riot damage, so they get an electronic gate with an intercom.

Reports of burglaries move them to bar the doors and windows and install an alarm system.

The loitering, unemployed people in the street motivate them to make the wall higher.

Further reports of crime lead them to get the coiled razor wire put on the wall.

What Is the Purpose of the Frame Story?

The story the narrator makes up could have been told without any preamble. The introductory story gives it some context that intensifies the meaning:

  • The writer balks at the thought she "ought to write" a children's story. This implies her bedtime story won't be what the anthologist has in mind.
  • She's awakened by a creaking sound that frightens her. She's worried it's an intruder, which is what the family in her bedtime story worries about.
  • Her fear is fueled by isolated criminal acts in her area. The family's new security measures are fueled by every crime report they hear.
  • Her house is built on "undermined ground" because far underneath lies a gold mine full of "Chopi and Tsonga migrant miners". They might be buried there now. This establishes the racial and economic inequality where the story is set. In hindsight, the house represents South Africa, a "house" built on a shaky foundation of injustice.

What’s the Significance of the Boy’s Death?

The boy dies from the final security measure, the most effective deterrent the couple can find, the "Dragon's Teeth" brand blade-filled coil on the wall. The irony of a security feature designed to keep a criminal out killing a family member is obvious.

His death illustrates the effect of extreme fear on people. It ends up figuratively killing them. They aren't "living" anymore; all they think about is the possible danger around them. At the least, it puts them in a prison of their own making.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Howard Allen (author) on September 13, 2020:

It is interesting, but it's not the story if you're looking for something amusing or uplifting.

Ginn Navarre on September 13, 2020:

Very interesting short story? Yet for me in today's crazy world I prefer and continue to stick to short stories that make me smile an laugh.

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