A Literary Analysis of Nadine Gordimer’s “Once Upon a Time”

By Emily Hines

Author’s Note ::  If you have not read this short story, you need to.  As the following essay portrays, it is an extremely shocking bit of literature.  Since I did not go into detail of plot line here, if you have any questions you can ask me and I will certainly find the answer to give you.


In Nadine Gordimer’s “Once Upon a Time”, the most important element is its theme.  The entire story is set about telling its readers that human beings create their own destruction.  The setting of the two parts of the story is important as well as the ironic structure presented.  Suspense and tone also add to the final effect.  All this is brought together to leave readers shocked, ready to rethink the importance of things in their own lives.

The story begins with the author presenting a situation in which great fear exists.  She hears a noise and is afraid of a burglar or murder inside her house.  However, she soon comes to realize that her fear was not something real, but that the noise causing her fear was really just the shifting of the earth.  The setting is important here in creating an atmosphere of dread which each human has experienced at one time in their life.  If the terror had ensued at a time during the day instead of the night, then it might have produced a more comical affect as opposed to the fright shared with the audience.  It pulls the reader into the story so that when the second part hits, the reader is completely engaged in the author’s sardonic telling of a fairy tale.

This fairy tale in itself is ironic due to the fact hat the very first paragraph of the entire story is dedicated to the author’s refusal to write a story for children.  Another situation of irony is presented in that the only thing relating the author’s tale to that of a children’s story is the setting.  A happy family in a “perfect” little suburb makes it seem like a story for children, but by the time the story finds its end, readers are left completely shocked.

Irony adds to this final affect in that everything the parents do to protect heir home becomes useless.  The gate speaker is used by the boy for a walkie-talkie.  The alarm is set off, but no one cares.  The high wall is mocked by the cat jumping over it.  The ultimate destruction is obvious when the boy is killed by the barbed wire.  All these precaution, things the characters thought they would die without, instead bring on unseen death.

This death, added to by the person vs. self conflict and sarcastic tone of the author, creates the theme of the entire piece.  This theme’s impact is even more great and shocking upon a second reading of the story.  The repetition of “YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED” stands to tell readers that this story is in fact warning them that with each move they make they build their own prison and bring on their own destruction.

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