Once Upon a Time
Genre of a Bedtime Story: Narrative Technique in “Once Upon a Time”
Throughout Nadine Gordimer’s short stories published in 1989, titled Jump and Other Stories, the South African author constantly combats the status quo with her controversially poignant content. In one of the short stories, Once Upon a Time, the narrator tells herself a bedtime story about a nameless family in a wealthy neighborhood during apartheid that experiences tragedy through the manifestation of their own fears for protection against outside threats. Throughout the short story, Gordimer conforms to typical conventions of a fairy-tale through her writing’s simplicity and inclusion of certain stereotypical phrases. However, she also deviates from typical fairy-tale conventions by starting with a parallel frame story outside of the fairy-tale as well as a reverse order of formulaic events. Ultimately, these combined conventions enhance the reader’s perspective while experiencing the narrative as well as the story’s literary value exponentially.
First and foremost, Gordimer refrains from more heightened writing during the “bedtime story” in order to apply the simplistic writing that is usually seen in the typical fairy-tale genre. For instance, Gordimer begins her bedtime story with “in a house, in a suburb, in a city, there was a man and his wife who loved each other very much” (25). In effect, Gordimer’s beginning line describes the simple setting through her parallelistic syntax and purposefully childish diction. In turn, her repetitive writing style creates a light-hearted mood for the reader, yet it establishes a more sarcastic tone for herself. In another example, multiple neighborhood watch signs display “YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED” (25) throughout the main family’s neighborhood. By setting up the exceedingly basic plot point of conflict within the story, the constant reminder to ward off invaders plagues the characters and repeats throughout the entire story, changing the once light-hearted mood to a darker, more sinister one for the reader instead. In essence, Gordimer’s simplistic technique aligns itself with typical conventions found in the fairy-tale genre and helps to establish how readers are suppose to initially feel during the beginning of Gordimer’s bedtime story.
Similarly, Gordimer also conforms to part of the fairy-tale genre when she includes stereotypical fairy-tale phrases during her bedtime story as well. For example, whenever characters refer to the husband’s mother within the main family, they refer to her as the “wise old witch” (28). In choosing to nickname the grandmother in that fashion, the character then reminds readers of similar fairy-tale lingo and the basic method of giving archetypes to every character possible, despite the “witch” merely being a grandmother. Moreover, Gordimer also references the “Prince who braves the thicket…and kiss the Sleeping Beauty” (30) while describing the little boy of the family as he adventures outside of the house re-enacting the story he’s reading. The reference to the story alludes to the story of Sleeping Beauty, where the dragon-teeth barbed wire fencing directly symbolizes and parallels the thorny thicket that the Prince trudges through as well as the actual dragon he faces in the allusion. Altogether, Gordimer’s inclusion of fairy-tale stereotypes, which usually lessens the literary value of a story’s originality and significance, adds a deeper level to the typical technique and in turn raises her own story’s value tenfold.
Contrary to the short story’s similarities to other fairy-tales, Gordimer includes an autobiographical frame story that parallels her bedtime story later in the text. Within her frame story’s premise, the narrator has been asked to write a short story for a children’s anthology book to which she replies “I don’t write children stories” (23) in the beginning of the story. Paradoxically, her straightforward statement parallels the fact that she later inadvertently tells herself a bedtime story, ironically a type of story that is associated with children either way—regardless of her personal opposition to the matter. While thinking about the ordeal one night, the narrator is awoken by a sound that she believes to be the creaking boards of her house. Nonetheless, she still confesses to the reader “I have no burglar bars… but I have the same fears of people who do take the precautions” (23-24), despite her initial rationalization of the sound. Thematically, at this instant, the frame story parallels the fairy-tale once again as burglar bars are among some of the precautions her characters take in defending themselves against outside dangers, yet in both instances there is nothing to protect all of the homeowners from the danger of their own paranoia. In either case, both the autobiographical frame story and the bedtime story parallel each other in a way that complements the narrative as a whole.
Additionally, Gordimer’s work also deviates from typical conventions of the genre by reversing the order of the fairy-tale formula. In particular, Gordimer switches the typical “happy ending” and “bad beginning” by starting her bedtime story with the family already living “happily ever after” (25). As a result, the story alludes to, yet still contradicts, the “Disneyfied” formula people expect in modern culture. Furthermore, Gordimer finishes executing her reverse order by ending the whole story with the gruesome atrocity of the family’s young son dying in a “bleeding mass” (30). Through Gordimer’s violent ending, her style is reminiscent of the original fairy-tales of the Grimm Brothers and therefore could possibly be interpreted as a conformity instead; however, compared to its contemporaries in literature, it is still seen as a deviation in a modernized perspective and context. Essentially, the reversed order brings an interesting component to Gordimer’s story’s dark themes, which mostly remains unique in her time.
Overall, Gordimer displays an intricate blend of conventions from the fairy-tale genre as well as her own style that differs from the genre significantly. Although the story mainly pertains to the South African people in especially the context of the apartheid, the message can be universally applied to any culture or society found throughout history. By illustrating various conventions of conformity and deviation from the typical fairy-tale genre, Gordimer effortlessly conveys the cultural significance of her story to her readers and the artistic significance of her story to any literary critics.