Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time Literary Elements


Short Story

Setting and Context

The setting of the novel is South Africa during the regime of apartheid.

Narrator and Point of View

There are two narrators in the novel. The first part of the story is told by Gordimer through first-person narration; in the second part, there is an omniscient third-person narrator. Both the narrators give their own point of view regarding the events. Gordimer talks about her life, her fears, and her old house, while the second narrator narrates the story of a family in a South African suburb.

Tone and Mood

Tone: light, satirical, ambiguous

Mood: foreboding, uncomfortable, insidious, unsettling

Protagonist and Antagonist

There are not clear-cut protagonists and antagonists; the family thinks that they are protagonists (the little boy is the closest to an actual one) and that the outsiders are antagonists, but this is too simplistic.

Major Conflict

Will all of the family's precautions keep them safe from the loiterers and criminals?


The climax comes at the very end of the story when the little boy climbs into the coils of barbed wire on the wall.


Gordimer foreshadows the boy's fate by showing frequently how he is very interested in and wants to play with the security measures.




1. Chopi and Tsonga: two groups of Africans from Mozambique
2. Prince and Sleeping Beauty: classic fairytale
3. "Once upon a time": the way almost all classic fairytales begin
4. "Tsotsi": "means hoodlum and may derive from zoot suit—refers to rootless South African young male criminals who, having no tribal connections, take many of their cues from American gangster movies" (New York Times)


The imagery is of the house turning into a fortress: impenetrable, dangerous, and inhospitable. Gone are the flowers and the starry skies unencumbered by bars; now, there are coiled, serrated wires, electronic gates, and robotic intercoms. All the imagery points to frantic, anxious, and futile attempts to shut all danger out of the sacred space of the home—something that fails.


The paradox in the story is that the barbed wires that were supposed to protect the child became the cause of his death. Instead of preserving his life, they end his life.


1. The little boy's "adventure" in the coils parallels the Prince's, but there is a very different outcome.
2. The dangerous conditions outside the neighborhood end up being paralleled by the dangerous condition inside, with the boy getting caught in the coils.

Metonymy and Synecdoche



1. "I felt the apertures of my ears distend with concentration"
2. "...the arrhythmia of my heart was fleeing, knocking this way and that"
3. "I couldn't find a position in which my mind would let go of my body"
4. "...there would be no way of climbing over it and no way through its tunnel without getting entangled in its fangs"
5. "The alarms called to one another across the gardens in shrills and bleats and wails..."