Once Upon a Time
Once Upon a Time’s unusual use of literary elements to depict effects of segregation
Tragically Ever After
Usually in a fairytale, it’s expected to see a prince, a princess, and their devastating journey that always ends with true love and a happily ever after. Unfortunately for the characters in this fairytale, the story is reversed and the happily ever after seems to turn into tragically ever after. In Nadine Gordimer’s “Once Upon a Time”, several literary terms- such as symbolism, irony, and foreshadowing- are used to put an unusual twist to this backwards fairytale.
“Once Upon a Time” uses symbolism as a key element in twisting up a normal everyday fairy tale and giving it a disturbing sort of mood. The whole fairytale in itself is symbolic of the Apartheid, or segregation of races in South Africa. Towards the beginning of the story while the happy family’s setting is being described, it is said that on a “YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED” sign there is a man, and “it could not be said if he was black or white, and therefore proved the property owner was no racist,” (Gordimer 3). This sentence is a false assumption because the whole plot of this story is talking about how the family is trying to keep out everyone that is a potential “danger”, when really they are just trying to keep out the races that are not their own. They fear that other races aren’t equal and are threats to them, which symbolizes families in South Africa who are segregated by race because of the apartheid.
In this short story, irony is a big part in making the ending seem very unexpected. Irony is thrown around left and right in “Once Upon a Time”, but the most important use of the literary term in this story is when the parents took precautions such as “a swimming pool which was fenced so that the little boy…would not drown,” and “they were insured against fire, flood damage, and theft, and subscribed to the local Neighbourhood Watch,” (Gordimer 2-3). These precautions are ironic because all of the parents efforts the keep themselves safe from the outsiders leads to their destruction and the little boy’s demise.
Another literary device used in this fairytale is foreshadowing. Through the first read, foreshadowing seems very insignificant, but after that, it shows a whole new side to this story. The first time foreshadowing is brought into “Once Upon a Time” is in the very beginning when the narrator states “I have no burglar bars, no gun under pillow, but I have the same fears as people who do take these precaution,” (Gordimer 1). This foreshadows the event of the family in the fairytale who take all of these precautions to ward off any threats, but are still faced with the fears that it won’t ever be enough. The fear that all of their precautions won’t be enough is also foreshadowed later on when “the boy’s pet cat effortlessly arriving over the seven-foot wall,” which proves that no matter how much protection they have, it never truly will be enough to save them.
In conclusion, symbolism, irony, and foreshadowing are very useful elements when it comes to giving an eerie and disturbing tone to an otherwise normal story. Fortunately for the reader, this makes “Once Upon a Time” a more thrilling story that hooks them on and reels them in all the way to the unexpected ending. Unfortunately for the characters, this fairytale ends with the little boy’s tragic and unexpected end.
Childhood romanticised in Forgive My Guilt and Once Upon a Time Poems
“Forgive my Guilt” and” Once Upon a Time”
Consider the poems “Forgive my Guilt” and” Once upon a Time”
- Discuss the presentation of childhood in each poem.
- Identify one image in each poem and discuss how it shows this presentation.
- Identify one literary device in each poem and comment on its effectiveness.
The poem Forgive my Guilt” by Robert Tristram Coffin is a narrative poem written in the first person. The innocence of childhood is marred by the boy’s wounding of a pair of plover birds. The poem is written in flashback because the persona wrote the poem as an adult with hindsight at his childhood. Innocence is conveyed through the speaker’s childlike uncertainty of “… what things called sin may be.” The persona was young and naive when the act was committed and was not certain of what would be classified as a sin. It is this act that has triggered the feeling of remorse and the title of the poem is a clue to the extent of this feeling. Childhood is also presented as a time of innocence when the boy “… lies in the frost flowers with a gun…” This shows that bird hunting was a pastime for children and this activity was not considered to be a sinful act that would cause a person to be regretful. The persona remorsefully reflects about the end of the birds’ lives and hopes that they were able to survive. He is forever haunted by the birds’ sounds of sorrow and he yearns for forgiveness for wounding and killing the birds all those years ago.
Similarly, in “Once upon a Time” by Gabriel Okara, childhood is also presented. The poem tells of a conversation between father and son, where the father wants to learn how to go back to normality and no longer be a fake person. The persona stresses how growing older can change a person and how he wishes that he could still have the sincerity that he once had. Okara talks a lot about “they” and he is describing everyday people in present society that have lost their simplicity and naturalness, they have lost the natural world of their childhood. The poet describes how growing up separates a person from his/her true self and lets him/her become corrupted by a world of false appearances. The repetition of the word “they” adds to a more sinister note in the poem as the reader begins to see that the poet has no warmth or respect for “them”. This reinforces the idea or the character that the poet is playing an outsider in society. The portrayal of childhood is evident through the deliberate contrast between a time in the past when things were innocent, pure, true, honest loveable and decent and the present which is the stark opposite. Childhood represents innocence and is the privilege of the young. The persona believes that children represent the uncorrupted society, ‘I want to be what I use to be when I was like you.” He looks at his son with admiration and affection ‘show me, son how to laugh, show me how I use to laugh and smile once upon a time when I was like you.” This means that the persona wants to relearn how to be innocent and loving and kind hearted when he was like his son once upon a time ago.
One image in “Forgive My Guilt” that portrays the presentation of childhood is the boy lying in the frost flowers with a gun with the intention to shoot the plover birds and his reaction when the gun went off and he ran to fetch the birds. There is a simile in the fifth line, “the air ran as blue as the flowers’ comparing the blueness of the air to that of the flowers. The clouds also moved and the sky appeared to be running. This is a personification. There a simile in the following line: “slim as dream things”. The persona then holds his breath showing that he feels the suspense of the moment. He wants the shot to be precise and waits for the moment to come. The images of sight and sound imageries engage the reader in such a way that the picture of the boy with the gun and the birds running when they got shot present the childhood behaviour of a child, especially a boy.
Likewise, an important image that represents childhood in “Once Upon a Time” are heavily concentrated on the body parts: heart, eyes, teeth, face, and hands. The sharp contrast between innocence and ‘soul’ of the past are set against hypocrisy and dishonesty of the present. Body actions once thought genuine such as handshakes and gestures are now empty and do not carry the feelings once associated with them. The persona wants to relearn how to be innocent. It is as though he can no longer find his own voice to express what he really thinks and feels. “… relearn how to laugh, for my laugh shows only my teeth like a snake’s bare fangs.” This gives off negative feeling as a snake is seen to be poisonous and not to be trusted; a symbol of deceitfulness and treachery from the bible.
One literary device that is used in “Forgive my Guilt” is simile. “They cried like two sorrowful flutes.” This simile is effective because it creates an image in the reader’s mind of how the plovers sounded when they got shot by the boy. The speaker is comparing the cries of the birds to the sound that the flute makes. This shows that the birds’ cries were loud and sorrowful because they were in pain and this simile alludes to an impending death of the birds.
Also, in “Once upon a Time” the poet skilfully employs the use of metaphor. This metaphor shows that the peoples’ eyes are as cold as ice which means that there is no warmth or real feeling in the words they say, or how they behave, it gives a very negative, fake and false feeling and it is a very cold description:
“but now they only laugh with their teeth,
while their ice-block-cold eyes
search behind my shadow.”
This metaphor literally allows the reader to visualize a block of ice, cold and unwelcoming. By using a metaphor the persona says that the person who is laughing, laugh with his/her eyes as cold and as solid as ice and there is no happiness what so ever inside the persons eyes while they search behind his shadow as in they look right past him without paying any attention to him whatsoever.
Irony In “Once Upon A Time” By Nadine Gordimer
The essay “Once Upon a Time” by Nadine Gordimer, is a moral story about the racism in South Africa that occurs between the wealthy and the poor. Gordimer explains this story came about when someone wrote her and said that “every writer ought to write at least one story for children. ” The story depicts a wealthy white family continuously investing in security measures in order to keep the poor, who they deem to be dangerous, out of their home. This essay unveils a large amount of irony as the story progresses. This allows readers to better understand the conflicts that arouse when a community consistently makes decisions about a social class that are based on the actions of one member of that same social class.
The irony in the “Once Upon a Time” begins with the name of the essay and first words of the children’s story. The words once upon a time are a “fairy tale approach and style” and they create a certain expectation that comes along with those words. The irony in that is the disastrous ending that is very unusual for a story that starts with such a cliché name and title. The fact that this family, “who felt extremely insecure in the changed environment and who inculcated imaginary fears within themselves, and in order to keep themselves protected from the wronged black populace” they put a huge fence that had barbed wire on the top just to feel comfortable. The ending of the story with the boy dragging a ladder to wall, climbing it and getting extremely hurt and possibly even dying is not exactly the result they expected from that fence.
The biggest example of irony that I see, is that she is supposed to be writing a children’s story; as you can tell this story is anything but meant for children. At the end of Gordimer’s story, the boy who lives in the house, has the idea to fight a dragon like the knights in his children’s stories. He begins to try and climb the fence around his home that is named “DRAGON TEETH, ” as he climbs he becomes entangled in the barbed wire. As the boy tries to get out he just gets pulled deeper into the barbs causing scrapes and cuts all over his body.
I believe that this part of Gordimer’s story is meant to serve as a warning. The majority of children’s stories end happily, with the hero coming out unscathed. This causes children to believe that all of their adventures will be successful, and the world is a happy place without any conflict that cannot be resolved.
The story “Once Upon a time” is a warning to the community not only about the nature of storytelling to children about major conflicts but also to the South African audience that the conflict of the state is not getting any better and you shouldn’t just expect it to go away because this isn’t a fairytale, this is reality and we have to do something about it and she communicates a lot of this through irony.
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.