“Once upon a time”

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Although some critics claim that there is a strong difference between commercial and literal literature, there is a gray ground in separating these two genres. Notably, the short story "Once Upon a Time" displays characteristics associated with all genres. It is interesting to note, though, that if this short story were to be assigned a more specific category, it would come under literal fiction. The reason for this is that the majority of the elements in the short story are literal.

An Examination of the Elements of "Once Upon a Time"

An examination of the elements of "Once Upon a Time" reveals that they have little to do with commercialism. Basically, “Once upon a time” is the author’s dream. At first, the author has trouble sleeping, but when he does, he begins to dream of an affluent neighbourhood that was surrounded by a group of poor and impoverished families. The family in question had been warned on the danger that these poor families posed hence to ensure that their home was secure, they included a lot of security devices in their home. Simply put, they made it a fortress. Concisely, the story is largely similar to a fairy tale. One of the aspects that makes it very similar is the title itself, “Once upon a time”. Additionally, the description of the family in question sounds more like a king and queen who were overly concerned about the safety of their family and their home. The only bit that does not sound like a fairy tale in this short story is the death of the couple’s son at the end. Essentially fairy tales are held dear by many because they describe an impossible kind of love that trickles down to a happily ever after. In this short story, the couple takes extreme measures to secure their home and themselves, but their son is killed by some of the security structures.

Critical analysis

It is easy for one to assume that short stories are just that; short stories. However, while they may be classified as short stories, they have complex themes that speak to the very core of human behaviour. “Once upon a time” for instance illuminates the need to strike a balance between security and freedom. Notably, the family employs security systems and structures that are extremely elaborate and largely unnecessary. The neighbourhood was prone to burglary alright, but saying that the nature of security systems instituted by the family was outrageous would an understatement. Barred windows, higher up walls, alarm system and electric fence to name but a few. The family can be described as have been paranoid considering that they resulted in all these security measures. Notably, the fallibility for then family’s paranoid is revealed when the son gets entangled in the wire, which is part of the security measures instituted by the family. This amplifies the fact that total liberty cannot coexist with total security. The only best option is attempting to balance the two aspects. This aspect embedded in the story gives a clearer distinction between literary fiction and commercial fiction. Literary fiction makes use of layered stories as depicted in “Once upon a time”, while commercial fiction is synonymous with morals or ideas that are more cliché.

The Perspective of Short Stories

Most of the short stories make use of the first person perspective at the beginning then the story gradually flows into third-person narrator in later sections. Notably, this creates an even bigger distance between the reader and the story besides the fact that the narrator tends to be blunt and bland. The reader is forced to make their own conclusion based on the theme of the story as opposed to following the thoughts of the characters. Most of the conclusions can only be based on the characteristics and behaviours of the characters. In “Once upon a time”, for instance, one can only make a conclusion on how the family reacts to the security threat in the neighbourhood. Nonetheless, the story is crafted as a fairytale, but by going through the latter sections of the story, one gets to realise that the fairy tale fell at the beginning is more of a disguise. In fact, the story highlights three major issues that resonate in society. These include societal insecurities, discrimination and prejudice and the extreme effect that fairy tales have on children.

Gordimer’s “Once Upon a Time”

Gordimer’s “Once upon a time” presents the feel of insecurity at the very beginning of the story. She presents a situation that is only too familiar to many where she is awoken by a bump in the dead of night and finds it hard to go back to sleep afterwards. While Gordimer confesses that she barely had any security measures in her house, no gun and no burglar bars, she acknowledges that she is just as afraid and insecure as the people who take all these security measures. To woo herself to sleep, she tells herself a story of a family that shared the same insecurities she had. The family, however, opted to put trust is a security measure to ensure their safety. In fact, the family felt very confident about the security measures they had in place, that they placed a plaque written YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. The discrimination aspect of the story is brought out where the old with warns the family against hiring people from the poor families outside the neighbourhood. On the other hand, prejudice is exhibited in the sense that there is a general assumption in the story that the poor families were the perpetrators of the burglaries.


The irony often excessive security measures is brought ought very clearly at the end of the story. The boy finds himself entangled in the spikes of the wired fence and the description given in the story points to the possibility of the boy's demise. Throughout the story, the family is depicted as one that is overly keen in entrusting their security to physical security apparatus, but the paranoia and insecurity behind these unnecessary measures cost the couple their son. Just to mention, “Once upon a time” has certain elements that paint it as a commercial fiction. However, most of the elements embedded in the story suggest that it is more of a literal fiction. The plot gives a rather melancholic ending which, unlike in fairly takes, makes the reader reflect than relax. This story indicates the complexities that exist between freedom and security. Additionally, the story lacks characterisation conspicuously leaving the task to determine the personalities of the family to the reader. While “Once upon a time” may seem like a random bedtime story, it is, in essence, a fictional story bearing multiple complex literal elements.

July 29, 2022



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