The sequence of decisions that the protagonists make as to how they will progressively interact with the “other” in the story, “Once Upon a Time,” are of particular interest because they result in an outcome that is the antithesis of their objective; instead of protecting themselves and what they love most, their young son, unwittingly, they set up a progression of
that prove fatal for him.
Objective: Using the second graphic organizer, that asks the question, “Why does the protagonist change from the beginning of the story to the end?” students will read the text closely to discern what it is about the identity of the white South African husband and/or wife that precipitates each decision and subsequent interaction with the black South Africans, leading to the final, fatal outcome. I briefly explain apartheid and its dire consequences in the narrative of my unit.
Students will read the story specifically looking for clues as to how the husband and wife might perceive the black South Africans. For example, in the first two paragraphs, “
they were warned, by the wise old witch, the husband’s mother, not to take on anyone off the street.” “They
subscribed to a local Neighborhood Watch
” (Gordimer, 25) “Yet she [the wife] was afraid that some day such people might come up the street
and open the gates and stream in
there are police and soldiers and tear-gas and guns to keep them away.” (Gordimer, 25-26)
Students need to ask the question, “How do the husband and wife’s culture, empathy, sense of ethics, race and racial bias and consciousness affect each of their decisions and interactions with these people who are growing increasingly more desperate for jobs and food?”
While the wife seems to be the driving force in the couple’s decisions and actions, the husband is complicit, first installing electronically-controlled gates, to assuage his wife’s initial fears that the black South Africans will just stream in unannounced. Then, when the housemaid and wife informed him that thieves were breaking into houses in the suburb, the husband installed burglar bars to all the doors and windows of the house, and installed an alarm system. His wife convinced the husband that the wall around their property should be higher because, now, black South Africans were hanging around outside their driveway, importuning for jobs when they drove their car out of the electronically-opened gates. With bricks that the husband’s mother pays for as a Christmas present, they build the walls higher. Finally when they learn that a house was ransacked while a family was at home, and that armed robberies are occurring, they peruse the neighborhood, scouting for the most effective protection from these
They settle on “the ugliest but the most honest in its suggestion of the pure concentration camp style, no frills, all evident efficacy. Placed the length of the walls, it consisted of 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.” (Gordimer, 29)
Students will consider how each decision and action further clarifies the identity of the husband and wife with their culture, their ethics, their sense of social justice, their empathy, their racial biases, and their personal fears. They will also be asked to consider how the husband and wife’s decisions and interactions led to the fatal and
outcome, the death of their young son. Please refer to my discussion of irony in the “Writing Assignment” section for “Once Upon a Time.”
It might be of great interest to discuss whether the husband and wife could have made different decisions, given their identities. This activity leads into the writing activity that I discuss in the narrative section of the unit.