Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time Summary and Analysis of Beginning to "For when they began..."


Gordimer begins with her own authorial voice, explaining that once, someone wrote to ask her if she would write a story for children; when she said she did not do that, he said every writer ought to write at least one. Gordimer was unconvinced.

One night not long after that, she went to bed, and something—she did not know what—roused her. It was a creaking sound, as if someone were walking. She tried harder to hear and knew she had no precautions against burglars even though she did not want to be robbed. She had heard of a woman murdered two blocks away in broad daylight, as well as a widower who had been knifed and seen his dogs strangled by a dismissed day laborer.

Her heart beat irregularly and she listened carefully for every possible threat. Finally, she realized it was the house itself, built on “undermined ground” and prone to creeping, trembling, and shifting. She thought of the Chopi and Tsonga migrant miners perhaps underneath it, “interred in the most profound of tombs.”

Unable to sleep, she began to tell herself a bedtime story, the content of which constitutes the remainder of the narrative.


There are a man and a woman who love each other very much, and they have a little boy whom they love very much. They live in a suburb in a city and have a cat, a dog, a pool, a housemaid, and an itinerant gardener; they are living happily ever after.


A first-person narrator, implied to be Gordimer herself, begins the short story by commenting in a rather disdainful way that someone once told her all authors should write a story for children; she is not interested in doing so. This changes one night when she is awakened by the fear that someone is inside her house. After she realizes that what she hears is just the house settling, she begins to tell herself a “bedtime story.” These innocuous words belie the disturbing nature of what she was just remembering—a neighbor who was murdered in broad daylight and another who was knifed, his dogs strangled—and what she was just thinking about in terms of her house—that it is essentially built on “undermined ground,” ground that may house migrant miners “interred in the most profound of tombs.” Gordimer makes it clear right away with her murdered neighbors and buried-alive South African Black miners that this is probably not going to be a “bedtime story” that would comfort a child.

With the first lines of the official bedtime story, now told by a third-person narrator, Gordimer continues to pique the reader’s curiosity and, perhaps, their concern: she utilizes one of the most famous refrains from fairy tales—”happily ever after”—but is applying it to what is obviously a contemporary story set in Gordimer’s home of South Africa (the suburb, car, various examples of technology, riots, and “people of another color” support this assertion of time and place). Right away, the reader must decide if this is really a bedtime story, a children’s story, or a fairy tale. It has a little boy in it and it is told in a simple, light, fashion with the familiar trappings of the fairy tale genre, but the riots, robberies, and casual racism complicate matters. Gordimer’s tone, which is tongue-in-cheek and satirical, also deviates from the traditionally serious tone of the fairy tale.

A list of the common aspects of fairy tales consists of the following:

1. A fairy tale usually begins with "Once upon a time…” (this is the only aspect Gordimer keeps)

2. Fairy tales are set in the past, usually a long time ago (here, we have 20th-century South Africa)

3. Fairy tales have fantasy, supernatural, or make-believe aspects (everything in this story is realistic and free from the supernatural)

4. Fairy tales usually have clearly defined good characters vs. evil characters (Gordimer gives us “protagonists” who don’t seem all that bad yet are clearly racist, and rioters and ne'er-do-wells whose burglaries and rage don’t seem all that hard to understand given the racially stratified society they live in)

5. Royalty is usually present in a fairy tale, such as a beautiful princess/handsome prince, castle, etc. (when the little boy tries to be the Prince at the end of this story, he dies violently)

6. Fairy tales involve positive or negative magic elements, which may be magical people, animals, or objects (this story features recognizable, realistically drawn characters behaving in a historically accurate fashion)

7. Fairy tales' plots focus on a problem or conflict that needs to be solved (the story does not really have much of a plot and it does not seem like there is any real resolution)

After all that, though, there is still something about Gordimer’s story that feels very fairy-tale-esque: fairy tales are notoriously violent and strange, and the tales of the Grimm brothers feature murderers, doomed children, rapacious animals, and many more unsettling characters and plotlines. There is a doomed child in Gordimer’s story, and so much about the apartheid era is flat-out disturbing and incomprehensible. In fact, while Gordimer does subvert some of the conventions of the genre, some critics suggest the short story ultimately reveals her adherence to them. As K. Narayana Chandran writes, “As a matter of fact, the ‘story’ Gordimer tells herself (or plans to write?) is a simple, predictable one. That story answers to the specifications of a story we read in textbooks, a story of well-meaning but foolishly overcautious parents who are hoist by their own petard.”