Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time Summary and Analysis of "Then the time came" to End


Eventually, people outside of the trusted housemaids and itinerant gardeners start loitering around the suburb. Some ask for a job, but the husband and wife remember the wise old witch’s words. The people sit in the street, leave their alcohol bottles lying about, and even fall asleep right in front of the gates.

The wife does not like to see anyone go hungry and sends the trusted housemaid out with food, but the housemaid warns her that those people are loafers and hooligans. The husband agrees and tells them not to encourage such people, who are simply waiting for their chance to rob the house.

The husband and wife agree that the wall should actually be higher since someone might still be able to climb over it and get into their property. The wise old witch pays for it as her Christmas present to her son and his wife, and she gives the boy a book of fairy tales.

Every week, there are more reports of intrusions at all hours of the day, some done in the most brazen of fashions. The husband and wife notice uneasily how their son’s cat jumps on the wall and crosses over to the other side. Its paws mark the whitewashed walls like the feet of “unemployed loiterers” leave smudges in the red earth before the property.

When the family walks the dog around the neighborhood, they no longer notice lawns and roses, all of which are hidden behind fences and security devices. The husband and wife decide that they must do something more—scattered broken glass on the top of the walls, or sharp iron lances, or a “continuous coil of stiff and shining metal serrated into jagged blades, so there would be no way of climbing over it and no way through its tunnel without getting entangled in its fangs.” It is ugly, horrifying, and of “pure concentration-camp style,” but the husband and wife agree it is the best option.

Workmen install the coils and the sunlight flashes on the metal. The wife worries about the cat, but the creature takes heed and no longer jumps on the wall.

One night, the mother reads the son a fairy tale from a book the wise old witch gave the boy. The next day, inspired, the boy decides to play the Prince who breaks through the thicket of thorns to enter the palace and kiss Sleeping Beauty. He takes a ladder and climbs into the thicket of thorns.

He immediately starts screaming and struggles deeper into “its tangle,” and the housemaid and gardener rush to his aid. The gardener cuts up his hand trying to get the boy out, but he cannot. The man and wife burst outside. The cat sets off the alarm, which screams as the husband hacks the boy out of the security coil with saws and wire cutters. They carry the “bleeding mass of the little boy” into the house.


Gordimer continues to inexorably build up the tension in the story toward a deeply unsettling conclusion. The husband and wife are not content with their fortress of a home, and they begin implementing more precautions. The husband’s mother, winkingly described as a “witch,” agrees to pay for an even higher wall for the home, seen as necessary because “if the house was surely secure, once locked with the alarm set, someone might still be able to climb over the wall or the electronically closed gates into the garden.”

One of the reasons that the higher wall is seen as necessary is because the “threat” of the Other is no longer abstract: poor economic conditions render much of the Black population destitute and bereft of opportunity, so they “hung about the suburb because they were unemployed.” Some ask for work; some “drank liquor and fouled the streets with discarded bottles.” Some begged and some simply loafed about. The wife is inclined toward altruism, but she is told by the trusted housemaid that the loiterers are bad people and she should not give them an opportunity to take advantage of her. The racialized rhetoric continues with the husband, who says she ought not to “encourage them,” as if they were animals or children, and that they would simply be “looking for their chance,” as if they were all opportunistic and criminals.

Finally, even the wall, alarm, and gates are not enough, and the couple decides to install a monstrous system of coils of serrated, barbed wire on top of the wall. It is in “pure concentration-camp style, no frills, all evident efficacy.” It gleams in the sun, and Gordimer anthropomorphizes it: “[there was] no way through its tunnel without getting entangled in its fangs.” After all, the company is “Dragon’s Teeth,” and they take their claim to providing “Total Security” very seriously.

The wise old witch’s Christmas gift to the boy—a book of fairy-tales —ends up being the simple catalyst for the child’s death, for it is the story of Sleeping Beauty that gives him the idea to climb into the thicket of “thorns” to rescue the princess. The boy’s fascination with the mechanisms of protection was made clear earlier when he and his friends would “use [the intercom] as a walkie-talkie in cops and robbers play”; that moment foreshadowed his use of the coils in his play. There is a deep, tragic irony in the house’s safety measures being the thing that brings about the little boy’s death. Of course, the ultimate cause of his demise is the subtle entrenched racism that exists in the white neighborhood of the story. Critic Sandra K. Friday seeks to summarize this fact: “Ironically, the husband and wife destroy the one thing they love most without any actual intervention from the black South Africans. The husband and especially the wife who were ‘living happily’ gradually become increasingly fearful, and each time their fear increases, they add more barriers around their house, until the degree of danger they have created within, far outweighs the danger that they fear without. They shut out the ‘other,’ thereby imprisoning themselves, and they inadvertently execute their own son. With each physical barrier they put up, they seem to further confine their compassion and empathy for the ‘other.’ “

In order to further understand the import and nuances of the ending of the story, we will conclude by looking at the idea of “the home.” J.U. Jacobs begins his article with a succinct statement on the nature of the home in the short story: “[it] dramatically symbolises the concept of home as a place of both inclusion and exclusion.” Jacobs references feminist scholars Biddy Martin and Chandra Talpade, using their explanation that home was “an illusion of coherence and safety based on the exclusion of specific histories of oppression and resistance, the repression of differences even within oneself.” While we can easily see what they mean in terms of gender and women’s stories being altered or elided in order to uphold the patriarchy, we can also see this as applicable to the short story in that the unemployed “rioters” are without a home, while the husband and wife do their best to shore up their home against the perceived threat of the outsider.

Jacobs turns to Homi K. Bhaha to further elucidate how the home of the husband and wife is made less homely and hospitable: it is the concept of unhomeliness, which is not being homeless but being unhomed. In moments of being unhomed, Bhaba writes that “the recesses of the domestic space become sites for history’s most intricate invasions. In that displacement, the borders between home and the world become confused; and, uncannily, the private and public become part of each other, forcing upon us a vision that is as divided as it is disorienting.” For the husband and wife, their home is supposed to be impervious to the outside world, yet that is completely wrong: while actual outsiders cannot come in, the couple’s own prejudices and fears permeate their house to the extent that they create a situation that leads to the death of their own son. Critic Rita Barnard notes that “the quest for ‘security’ only produces further instability and violence,” and, similar to Bhaha’s assertion, “There is no literal intruder here; instead, the intruder is narrative itself: the irruption of the unpredictable and the diachronic—the invasion of an ostensibly risk-proofed private space by history.”