Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What is the relationship between the phrase “living happily ever after” and the resolution of the story “Once Upon a Time”?

    The phrase “living happily ever after” is associated with fairy tales. However, the resolution is not fairy-tale-like and deconstructs the phrase “living ever after.” In the resolution, Gordimer writes, “Then the man and his wife burst wildly into the garden and for some reason (the cat, probably) the alarm setup wailing against the screams while the bleeding mass of the little boy was hacked out of the security coil with saws, wire-cutters, choppers, and they carried it — the man, the wife, the hysterical trusted housemaid and the weeping gardener — into the house.” The boy’s evisceration is due to his endeavors to conduct himself like a prince in the fairy tale, and it is his parents' desire to isolate themselves, as if they were Rapunzel, that lays the groundwork for the tragedy. There is no "happily ever after," as that is an inherently spurious assertion to begin with, and certainly not possible in the world of apartheid, racism, and class divide.

  2. 2

    What is the role of the exposition in “Once Upon a Time”?

    In the exposition, Nadine Gordimer offers an account of the state of affairs in her life. She is nervous in her house due to the recognition that she may be attacked anytime because she does not have precautionary measures taken. After concluding the exposition, Nadine delves into another ‘bedtime story’ whose plot mirrors the existing goings-on in her life. The inclusion of Nadine Gordimer’s personal situation before delving into fictional stories is a kind of "meta-fiction," blending the real author's identity with the content of her fiction. Through meta-fiction, the reader marks the divergence between the exposition, which is closer to reality, and the “bedtime story,” which is more distant from it. However, the reader does not know if Gordimer the original expositor is actually relating something that really happened to her —the man telling her she needed to tell a story for children, and the eerie events at night in her house—or allowing that to be a wider framing device for the bedtime story. Thus, there is Gordimer the author potentially writing about a fictive Gordimer, the expositor, writing about a story she told.

  3. 3

    What is the irony of the alarm system? How does this irony play into the story's broader themes and message?

    The alarm systems present intruders with impeccable opportunities to break into homes—which is, of course, contrary to the purpose of these systems. Gordimer writes, “Under cover of the electronic harpies' discourse intruders sawed the iron bars and broke into homes, taking away hi-fi equipment, television sets, cassette players, cameras and radios, jewelry and clothing, and sometimes were hungry enough to devour everything in the refrigerator.” The original intent of installing the alarm was to keep the thieves at bay. However, the alarm sound turns out to be a utility to the burglars because the loudness makes it possible for the burglars to cut the iron bars, after which they access the houses and steal. The alarm systems subvert the homeowners’ plan and show that they are too caught up in their anxiety to think clearly about what they're doing to their homes. They've blocked out the sun and the moon with bars, put the flowers behind gates, filled the air with shrieking machines, and installed deadly barbed wires in a place where children live.

  4. 4

    How does "Once Upon a Time" fit into the broader literary tradition of postmodernism?

    Gordimer makes use of metafiction when she acknowledges that “Once Upon a Time” is a story-within-a-story, perhaps even within another story. Second, Gordimer employs pastiche because “Once Upon a Time” takes elements from autobiography, fiction, and fairy tale. Also, Gordimer deconstructs the literary form of the fairy tale in “Once Upon a Time” by setting her story in the modern era, removing magic and fantasy, omitting any real lesson learned, etc. All of these are hallmarks of postmodern literature.

  5. 5

    Is the story propaganda or literature?

    Gordimer said once, “Propaganda has its place. It seeks to persuade people. But literature, poetry, novels, stories—these are an exploration of life.” This quote would suggest that she does not see her story as propaganda; rather, it is simply an exploration of lives lived in the apartheid era. However, if the definition of propaganda includes "the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person" (Merriam Webster), then one could make the case that this story has elements of propaganda. There may be an attempt here to injure the institution of apartheid, to injure entrenched and codified racism, or to provoke the complacency of the white South African population into seeing how ridiculous and self-defeating their behavior is. The story seems to straddle the gap between propaganda and literature.