"But I learned that I was to be neither threatened nor spared. There was no human weight pressing on the boards, the creaking was a buckling, an epicenter of stress. I was in it."
Gordimer says she is neither to be "threatened nor spared," which is more telling than it might initially seem. There are no intruders, so she is not going to be robbed or harmed, but she is not to be spared either, for her house is the cause of her unrest. She cannot quit it, nor can she change the fact that it is built on undermined ground and part of a society whose wealth and power is built on the backs of Black laborers.
"It was not possible to insure the house, the swimming pool or the car against riot damage. There were riots, but these were outside the city, where people of another color were quartered. These people were not allowed into the suburb except as reliable housemaids and gardeners, so there was nothing to fear, the husband told the wife. Yet she was afraid that some day such people might come up the street and tear off the plaque YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED and open the gates and stream in... Nonsense, my dear, said the husband, there are police and soldiers and tear-gas and guns to keep them away."
From this passage, a reader can draw inferences about the races that the narrator covertly makes reference to in Gordimer's bedtime story. “The people of another color” refer to the Black people who are restrained from white people’s localities. The white people are better off than the Blacks whose jobs include working as "housemaids and gardeners." The "police and soldiers" are the representatives of the dominant establishments which propagate apartheid dogma. Gordimer doesn't have to use many words to help us understand what time and place the story is in.
"The man and his wife, talking of the latest armed robbery in the suburb, were distracted by the sight of the little boy's pet cat effortlessly arriving over the seven-foot wall, descending first with a rapid bracing of extended forepaws down on the sheer vertical surface, and then a graceful launch, landing with swishing tail within the property."
The cat’s adeptness in climbing the "seven-foot wall" disproves the wife’s line of reasoning concerning the prospect of deterring invaders by way of a towering wall. The cat augments Nadine Gordimer’s ideological objective of reproving the walls. If the cat can effortlessly ascent the wall, then it means that human beings, too, can formulate techniques to defy the loftiness of the wall. The walls are false security: they are symbols of ignorance and fear of the Other.
"So I began to tell myself a story, a bedtime story."
When Gordimer utters this line, she prepares her readers for a certain type of story. A bedtime story is usually something charming and whimsical. It is for children, as children are the ones that request such tales. Perhaps it is a fairy tale or some other simple morality tale. It should be simple and comforting so the child can go to sleep peacefully. Because Gordimer tells us this and we understand what a bedtime story is supposed to be, we erroneously think we are in for something we know and understand. She will slowly and subtly pull the rug out from under us, and we will eventually realize this is no bedtime story we've ever heard before.
"...a loss made keener by the property owner's knowledge that the thieves wouldn't even have been able to appreciate what it was they were drinking."
In this quote, Gordimer satirizes the ridiculousness of the white affluent members of the community. These people are upset not just because their houses have been violated and their possessions were taken, but also because the people who did so are so low, trashy, and unrefined that they are drinking expensive liquor and not even understanding how rare and remarkable such liquor was. That this is even a woe speaks to the selfishness and snobbery of the white residents.
"...the trusted housemaid said these were loafers and tsotsis, who would come and tie and shut her in a cupboard."
The trusted housemaid is Black, the narrator implies, and is thus an example of how racism fosters divisions not just between white and Black but also between Black and Black. The housemaid is seen as a "good" Black person who knows her place and labors diligently for the white family. She is content with that, no doubt because it gives her security in several ways. But she elevates herself above other, "lesser" Black people and falls into the same mindset as her employers. She knows economic opportunities are few and she is not willing to relinquish hers. Thus, the architects of apartheid can use both white people and some Black people to enforce and preserve the system.
"When the man and wife and little boy took the pet dog for a walk round the neighborhood streets they no longer paused to admire this show of roses or that perfect lawn; these were hidden behind an array of different varieties of security fences, walls and devices."
The white people in their nice neighborhood are so consumed with protecting themselves from the Other that they strip away all beauty and comfort from their community. All they see are bars and fences; all they hear are alarms. This is the only way they know how to deal with their societal unrest: to lock themselves in a rarefied fortress and shut the rest of the world out. Of course, as the end of the story shows, the outside world will still insinuate itself within, especially if the danger is already located within.
"It was the ugliest but most honest in its suggestion of the pure concentration-camp style, no frills, all evident efficacy."
The narrator is blatant in the comparison of the coils to a concentration camp, a place common to South Africa. In concentration camps, people were held against their will, seen as enemies of the state who needed to be separated from the population at large. Concentration camps were characterized by danger, deprivation, forced labor, casual violence, denial of civil liberties, and, often, denial of one's humanity. It is ironic that the couple, who is white, affluent, and in a position of power in their society, decides to use the apparatus of a concentration camp to fence themselves in; it is no wonder it ends in tragedy.
"And it was true that from that day on the cat slept in the little boy's bed and kept to the garden, never risking a try at breaching security."
With this line, the narrator quells our fears and lulls us into complacency. The cat is safe, we think, and has learned to adapt itself to the new security measures of the house. But the boy is not a cat: he is not able to benefit from instinct. He is part of a wider social web, spun by his parents and filled with numerous dangers. His instincts do not save him; he can neither reason nor measure danger.
"Then the man and his wife burst wildly into the garden and for some reason (the cat, probably) the alarm set up wailing against the screams..."
This is a horrific scene, one that brutally encapsulates how wrong the husband and wife really got it. They were the ones creating an unsafe environment. They were the villains, the ones who placed their son in harm's way. They let their desire to separate themselves from the Other blind them to the way they were living and the way their son was orienting himself to all the changes. There are biblical allusions in the coils having a "cornice of razor thorns" that "encircled" the house, and the boy being a "bleeding mass" who had to be cut down; here we see the boy as Jesus with a crown on his head being brought down off the cross, bleeding and sacrificed to the ignorance and cruelty of the masses (or, in this case, his ignorant parents).
Once Upon a Time Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Once Upon a Time is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Anyone who pulled off the sign YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED) and tried to open the gates would have to announce his intentions by pressing a button and speaking into a receiver relayed to the house. The little boy was fascinated by the...