The title of this story and the beginning of the first paragraph, with the exception of the setting in a suburb, lead the reader to believe it could be a children’s modern fairytale: “In a house, in a suburb, in a city, there were a man and his wife who loved each other very much and were living happily ever after. They had a little boy, and they loved him very much.” (Gordimer, 25) But farther down in the first paragraph the reader learns that “the local Neighborhood Watch supplied the family with a plaque for their gate lettered YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED over the silhouette of a would-be intruder.” And the beginning of the second paragraph reiterates that this is no children’s story: “It was not possible to insure the house, the swimming pool or the car against riot damage.” (Gordimer, 25)
The setting is Johannesburg, South Africa, during the struggle against apartheid. The family who “loves each other very much” is a white family living in the suburbs of the city. And the black South Africans who are desperate for jobs and food have abandoned their assigned townships and begun living in squatters’ camps just outside the city, and sometimes rioting, and hanging around in the suburbs outside white people’s gates, soliciting for work, or food for their starving families. Because apartheid had been built into the South African culture when the country was colonized by the Dutch and British, and out of fear, the husband and wife do not hire these squatters, nor do they feed them, which they think would encourage them to stay and become more threatening.
The story reveals, layer by layer, that this white family who lives in their suburb gradually builds a fortress around them, in their growing desperation to protect their young son, themselves, and their possessions from these
who have even begun, out of
own growing desperation, breaking into homes in the neighborhood. Unwittingly, the man and his wife gradually imprison themselves, and ultimately bring about the gruesome death of what they love most, their young son, who, while acting out the role of the prince rescuing the princess in the fairytale, “Sleeping Beauty,” becomes entangled in the coiled tunnel of razor wire that has been mounted, ironically, to protect him, on the high walls that surround their property.
The graphic organizers that ask the questions, “How does the main character change and why?” will focus on the husband and/or the wife who were “living happily ever after,” when the story begins in South Africa. It is a time when black South Africans are challenging apartheid, and the husband and wife seem to make their decisions about the “others” based on concern only for their own well-being and their possessions, rather than on any concern for the hungry, jobless, and increasingly desperate black South Africans. 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.”
While the outcome of their decisions and interactions with the black South Africans is horrifying, Nadine Gordimer gives us no indication as to whether they ever come to the realization that they, single-handedly, brought about this nightmare. It seems that the realization of what they did out of their own cultural prejudices and fear is lost on them, or at least left unexplored by Gordimer, because the story ends as they carry the mangled mass of their son’s body, referred to as “it,” into the house. But perhaps it is not lost on the reader who is left to speculate on alternative responses that might have created a different outcome, and not have been life-threatening.
Much can be done with the fairytale motif, and my students might enjoy setting their own stories in this genre. In the case of “Once Upon a Time” the husband and wife are reacting to the “other” as they have learned from their culture: black South Africans must stay in their place, literally; they must not travel without their identification cards; they must obey the curfews; they must not leave their townships; they certainly must not cause disruptions regardless of whether they need jobs and money to buy food for their starving families.
Students will have considered and, I hope, talked about what we learn from our culture that may not embody compassion nor be ethical, such as when our own culture sanctioned slavery, or when the Indiana Legislature, recently, passed a law barring people without a government authorized photo ID from voting. Students might explore whether this new law (said to deter voter fraud) is in the best interests of voters, or a law that intentionally obstructs one’s freedom to vote. They may have their own personal experiences and observations as to whether our culture practices equal rights and civil liberties.
Students might consider writing about a time when out of fear, a character or a group of people reacted to “others” in such a way that they jeopardized their own safety, just as the husband and wife, in their fearful reaction to the “other” ironically jeopardized the safety of their son. The outcome of this story might stimulate students to think about decisions and actions in which they have engaged that have resulted in ironic outcomes.
It is important here to consider the concept of irony. It is present in “The Last Spin,” and in “A Greedy Friend” which the students will have read at this point. Revisiting these stories specifically to identify the irony, and the magnitude of the irony, and then brainstorming other examples of irony that students have experienced or read about in another story or seen in a movie, will help clarify the challenging concept of irony. This will also present students with an understanding that irony runs the gambit from being relatively superficial to having profound moral and ethical implications.
Perhaps students could rewrite “Once Upon a Time,” bringing about a different outcome.