Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time Summary and Analysis of "They were inscribed" to "Under the cover of the electronic harpies'"


The man’s mother, “that wise old witch,” warns him and his wife not to take anyone in off the street, as society is experiencing some unrest right now. The husband and wife are very cautious and get insurance against flood damange, fire damage, and theft. They license their dog and join a medical benefit society. Over their gate, they hang a sign: YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. The letters spell this out over a masked intruder’s silhouette, and one cannot tell if it is Black or white (they are not racist, after all).

There are riots outside the city where people of another color are quartered; those people are not allowed into this suburb unless they are hired by the people who live there. The husband reminds the wife of this, but she is still worried, asking what would happen if one of them were to come up and rip the sign off. The husband reassures her that there are police and soldiers to deal with it.

All the same, he knows about the stoning of cars, the burning of buses, and schoolchildren being shot outside the suburb, so he has electronically-controlled gates fitted with an intercom. The little boy and his friends like to play cops-and-robbers with it.

While the riots are suppressed, burglaries still happen. The “trusted” housemaid of the husband and wife implores her employers to have burglar bars put up on the windows and an alarm system installed. They know she is right, so they take her advice; “they [are] living happily ever after even though they saw the trees and sky through bars.”

Oftentimes, when one burglar alarm in the neighborhood goes off, others are triggered. They call to each other so much that everyone becomes used to them. Unfortunately, this means that “under cover of the electronic harpies’ discourse,” intruders start breaking into homes by sawing off bars undetected. Sometimes, they even drink the whiskey in the home, which is not covered by insurance and is made all the more insulting since “the thieves wouldn’t even have been able to appreciate what they were drinking.”


With every succeeding sentence, Gordimer leads the reader to realize that what seemed like it would perhaps be a traditional fairy tale is, in fact, something very different. Yes, there is a loving husband and wife with a lovely son, but they seem overly concerned with the rules and being thought of as good, appropriate people. Only a few words later, Gordimer brings in intimations of a more modern era—nothing suggestive of a fairy tale milieu. There is a “wise old witch,” but rather than evoking magic, she warns them not to take anyone in from “the street.” We don’t yet know what she means, but her language is that of a person of a higher class warning about people who are categorized by her ilk as shiftless, lazy, and dangerous.

Gordimer proceeds to show how fixated the couple is on keeping their property safe, and suddenly we learn there are “riots” taking place in the neighborhood “where people of another color were quartered.” This is when it all becomes clear: this is apartheid-era South Africa, and Black people do not live in a certain area but instead are quartered there. Now it makes sense that the housekeeper is “trusted”—she is an exception to the rule—and that the gardener is “itinerant”—he does not have a permanent home and is allowed to come in and out of the neighborhood with the residents’ permission only.

With the riots and the ensuing burglaries, the couple begins initiating a series of protections and barriers around their home. The first step is the aggressive sign with the words “YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED” plastered on their gates. There is an image of a masked intruder on it, and because it is simply a silhouette, there is no way to tell if the figure is supposed to be Black or white. This is good, for it “therefore proved the property owner was no racist.” Of course, almost all whites who lived in South Africa during apartheid were indeed racist and/or benefited directly from apartheid’s racial separation. The couple thinking they are not racist and not doing anything deliberately aggressive toward Black people in the text simply shows us that they are a different, more subtle, and thus less easy-to-pin-down form of white supremacist. They think they are “good people” but harbor convictions of racial difference and behave in a way that further segregates the races. Critic Martin Trump writes of Gordimer’s white characters: “These stories do point to the spiritual impoverishment of the affluent characters and that Gordimer has laid bare the shallow and empty lives which most of these people pursue. By doing this, Gordimer is hinting at how this truncated life-style has some kind of correlation with the characters' lack of contact with the experiences of the African people around them. In many of these works the white characters are portrayed as an aimless class of people on the African continent.”

Not that they would realize or own up to that, of course. The couple seems highly ignorant and/or unconcerned with their place in the wider world, only concerned with securing their worldly possessions from the grasp of the Other. As they begin to spiral further and further into their conviction that they and their property are unsafe, they begin to lose sight of what “safe” actually means and what makes life beautiful and worth living. For example, after the sign, the next step is the bars over the window, which Gordimer presents in a satirical fashion: “So from every window and door in the house where they were living happily ever after they now saw the trees and sky through bars.” It is as if they were imprisoning themselves, but they do not seem to realize this. And after the bars comes the alarm, which is described as a “din” of “shrills and bleats and wails,” an “electronic harp[y]” that forms a chorus with the other alarms of similarly frightened white people. The alarms are intrusive and loud—a constant cacophony (and they don’t actually work!)—but they give the sense of security, so they are able to stay. Though the reader might be able to see this is absurd, the couple and others in the neighborhood do not; their whiteness and affluence have made them so afraid of the Other that they would rather live as they now do than run the slightest risk of an unpleasant encounter.