Once Upon a Time by Nadine Gordimer
In Once Upon a Time by Nadine Gordimer we have the theme of apartheid, equality, racism, insecurity, freedom, innocence, control and fear. Narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator (writer) the reader realises after reading the story that Gordimer may be exploring the theme of apartheid. The couple and their son live in a wealthy suburb in whereby black people are not allowed to enter. Which may leave some readers suspecting there is an issue of equality with black people being considered inferior to white people. If anything with apartheid came racism and black people being only trusted to do menial jobs. Though it is unsure as to who is committing all the crime in the area. The man and his wife assume like their neighbours that it must be black people. Even though they have no proof. Which may leave some readers suspecting that the man and his wife are racist. As too are their neighbours. They would prefer to distance themselves from black people hence their living in a wealthy suburb in which black people are not allowed nor are they employed unless they come with references. Leaving many black people with no option but to beg on the streets of the suburb in order to improve their lives.
The title of the story may also be significant as one would expect a story that begins with ‘Once Upon a Time’ to have a happy ending. This however is not the case with the son killed after trying to re-enact a story that his mother had read to him. If anything the son is innocent of the world around him and does not fully comprehend that all the security that surrounds the house is not necessarily safe. Something that becomes clear to the reader when the boy is killed by the fencing that is attached to the wall of his parent’s home. If anything the security measures taken by the man and his wife highlight to the reader the insecurities that they feel due to what is happening in the neighbourhood. However they do not realise that they are turning their home into a prison like fortress. Giving up their freedom at the same time. Something that is clearer when the man and wife’s walking pattern changes. They also see others with walls and fencing and feel as though they too must have the same. Without realising that they are turning their home into a prison. The results of which are catastrophic to the man and his wife.
What is also interesting about the story is the fact that the man and wife appear to be living their life in fear. Which may or may not be justified. They are also pushed along by the man’s mother who may be the main perpetrator of the fear. Though only briefly mentioned in the story she has a large impact on the narrative of the story. With many of the changes to the man and wife’s home being instigated by her. Though some critics might suggest that all three. The man’s mother, the man and his wife are being irrational. Fear too can be irrational if not overpowering and at times an individual when afraid can make rash and incorrect decisions. Ones that can cause more pain than being a solution. Which is very much the case when the man and wife’s son plays with the fencing on the wall. Even the cat has the intuition to know that the fencing is dangerous and as such no longer uses the wall to access the family home. Unfortunately for the man and wife their son is not as intuitive and he ends up paying a heavy price for his innocence.
The fact that all the characters in the story (including the narrator) remain nameless may also be important as by not naming individual characters Gordimer may be suggesting that the issue at hand is global. All judgments that the reader makes also come from the individual actions of each character. The man for example takes control over what is to happen. Which may be Gordimer’s attempt to highlight the male dominated patriarchal system that existed at the time and which may still exist today. Though the man may feel as though he is just reassuring his wife. The reality is that he controls everything that is happening. He is attempting to control his environment and attributing blame to a certain section of society (black people). When again he has no proof or evidence that those responsible for the deterioration in the community is driven by black people. Rather the man is adhering to commonly held beliefs at the time when it comes to black people and their role in society.