Once Upon a Social Issue
Hayden Grant Hayes
EH 101, Section 02
Thursday, January 27 2000
Once Upon a Social Issue
Fairy tales have always been told to us as children; whether to comfort or entertain us, they always seem to be a part of most everyone?s childhood. When Nadine Gordimer was asked to write a children?s story, she replied with a short story titled ?Once Upon A Time?. Although the title is characteristic of a fairy tale, she leads the tale to an ending that is anything other than ??happily ever after.? Gordimer distorts the fairy tale by dealing with certain issues rather than giving the reader the usual fairy tale characteristics. Three of the more significant issues Gordimer likes to deal with in her story are racial discrimination and prejudice, society?s insecurities, and the persuasive way fairy tales have with children.
Gordimer?s ?Once Upon A Time? has the feeling of insecurity right away. In the first part of her story, Gordimer reminds us of our own insecurities. She brings up a familiar situation in which one is awakened by a bump in the night and cannot go back to sleep because of fear or their own insecurities. Gordimer writes, ?I have no burglar bars, no gun under the pillow, but I have the same fears as people who do take these precautions…? So, to better convey this issue of society?s insecurities, she tells herself a bedtime story. In the story, there is a family who is living ??happily ever after?, yet is seems it is all that they can do to keep it that way. Rather than putting their insecurities aside and getting on with their lives, they feel that they must put their trust in security devices to protect their selves. For a short while, the family has a sense of security by posting a plaque stating ??YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED? over the silhouette of a prospective intruder. After a short time the family?s psychological need for more security calls for a number of new security devices in order to sustain the top level of security. It is in the family?s pursuit of this ?security? that they virtually imprison themselves. After the installation of burglar bars, Gordimer describes the view ?from every window and door in the house where they were living happily ever after they now saw the trees and sky through bars.?
One of the less obvious issues lining ?Once Upon A Time? is racial discrimination. Gordimer first suggestion that this suburb may be slightly racist is by stating that the plaque on their gate warning possible intruders didn?t designate black or white, therefore protesting too much the owner of the home not to be a racist. By adding this statement, Gordimer lets there be evidence for a possible racism problem in this suburb. Gordimer?s statement of riots outside of the city was also supporting evidence toward racism in this place. The only black people that were allowed in the suburbs were those considered to be trustworthy gardeners or housemaids, and soon the trustworthy were not the only black people to be loitering around the suburb. Gordimer writes of the community stating ?it was a beautiful suburb, spoilt only by [the black people?s] presence.? With the coming of these undesired guests, the family?s sense of security begins to weaken yet again. In order to further suppress their insecure feelings, they decide to raise the walls surrounding the property to a height of seven feet. Later, after finding footprints that were not their own on the street side of the wall, the family?s sense of security was further diminished. As a final attempt at gaining complete security, the family pondered the addition of even more protection for their outside wall. The family?s pursuit of a mental security booster was finished when they lined the outside walls with razor wire that formed an unconquerable barrier.
Feeling quite safe with their new wire defense, the mother finally feels secure enough to let her guard down and read her little boy a fairy tale. The fairy tale, a story about a prince who dashes through a terrible thicket of thorns to enter the palace and kiss the Sleeping Beauty and bring her back to life. Children, having the imaginations that they do, sometimes like to pretend to be a hero as in the fairy tale. So, the next day, the little boy decides to also save the sleeping beauty by crawling through the shinny new obstacle atop the outside wall. Once inside the young prince began to charge through the insurmountable odds, and found them to be truly insurmountable. The tunnel of stainless steel razor coils quickly entrapped the young boy, tangling and terribly mangling him in his struggle to escape until finally the boy cannot struggle any longer.
There can be many interpretations of the authors meaning and purpose for writing. Gordimer utilizes this opportunity to address the issue of insecurity that society is overrun by today. She also examines the unfairness and racial problems that many parts of South Africa face. By the boy having been killed, it is clear that Gordimer wanted to show how someone living with these issues, like the family, could actually weaken themselves by submitting to their prejudices and insecurities. With all of this said, I feel that this story is more than anything, a way for Gordimer to express her thoughts and feelings on these topics while also sort of defying an attempt by someone to have the audacity to tell her what she should write.