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Analysis of Nadine Gordimer’s Once Upon a Time

“Once Upon a Literary Element (Or several): Fictional Aspects of “Once Upon a Time”

Although some critics may believe in a more clear-cut distinction between literary and commercial fiction, there does exist a sort of gray area in between the two categories of fiction. “Once Upon a Time” exhibits qualities of both genres. However, if this short story were categorized into a definitive class, it would fall primarily into the realm of literary fiction. Most of the elements of “Once Upon a Time” are literary, and therefore, the story as a whole falls into this category.

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“Once Upon a Time” employs many literary elements, since an analysis of the plot clearly shows components clearly not pertaining to commercialism. Essentially, a writer has trouble falling asleep and dreams of another story. In this inner tale, a group of poor, impoverished people surround a family and their affluent neighborhood, and the family decides to implement security devices around the house, essentially creating a fortress. In the end, the security measures end up killing the child of the family. The plot as a whole does not align itself with a piece of commercial fiction. Commercial writers employ more dramatic, adventurous, and exciting plotlines.

However, the text does not present any of these elements of the plot. Commercial fiction usually has a “happy ending,” where the characters overcome the hardships and achieve the goal they originally set out to do. However, the exact opposite occurs in “Once Upon a Time.” At the end of the story, the little boy is mangled in the metal mesh and presumably dies (Gordimer 225). The reader walks away from the end of the story more perceptive, not satisfied and entertained as they might be in commercial fiction.

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The commercial style of fiction usually displays one or more central protagonists with whom the reader can relate; however, this story presents no such character(s). All of the people in “Once Upon a Time” remain nameless, and for the most part, the text provides very little detail as to the personalities and traits of the characters. Even in the beginning, the author of the story is very cryptic about himself.

With such mysterious and ambiguous characters without names, readers struggle to connect with the characters. By making characterization essentially nonexistent, the text forces readers to look past characters to other ideas in the story, such as the theme and irony.

“Once Upon a Time” also deals with more than just the obvious contrast between rich and poor. Literary stories have more complex themes to them as well. As for “Once Upon a Time,” the text highlights the need for balance between security and freedom. The elaborate defence systems the family employs are extremely extensive and unnecessary, with numerous defensive gadgets being utilized (Gordimer 222).

When the child is caught in the wire, the fallibility of the family’s paranoia is revealed. Total safety and liberty cannot coexist; the two aspects of life must be balanced. People cannot attain total security while maintaining freedom, and vice versa. Literary fiction usually utilizes these layered stories, whereas commercial fiction simply has “morals” or cliché ideas behind them.

The beginning of the stories utilizes the first-person perspective, and then the majority of the piece is told through a limited third-person narrator. This perspective distances the reader from the story even further; the narrator is very blunt and bland. Without delving into the thoughts and minds of the characters, the reader is forced to make his or her own conclusions regarding the characterization of the family in the story. At times, the perspective delves into one particular aspect of the story, such as describing how the wire would be “only a struggle getting bloodier and bloodier, a deeper and sharper hooking and tearing of the flesh” (Gordimer 224).

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The narrator also is seen as protecting the innocence of the family and their neighbors, such as describing the deeds of the riots while saying they are “out of sight and hearing of the suburb” (Gordimer 222). Overall, however, the narrator does not try to convey an emotion or elicit emotional responses from the reader. Commercial fiction often attempts to cue the reader when and what to feel. However, this story lets readers think and analyze for themselves. For example, the narrator describes the burglaries in a very objective manner (Gordimer 222).

So, the third-person narration (for the most part) further supports the idea of “Once Upon a Time” being a literary piece of fiction.

The last literary element the text employs is irony. Indeed, commercial fiction can effectively utilize irony for humor and plot purposes. However, the central irony of the story helps reveal one of the most important themes– the balance between freedom and security. The theme and irony of the story are intertwined because the central irony reveals the theme. Throughout the inner story, the family makes their home a military bastion.

The family began with a sign that read “YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.” Eventually, the protection escalates into an electronic gate, an elaborate alarm system, and a “concentration-camp style” wall complete with barbed wire (Gordimer 222, 224). The irony of all the safety precautions presents itself in the final moments of the story. The young boy is caught in the tangling mess of security, and the text suggests the boy is dead. Throughout the story, the family attempts to protect themselves with physical devices, but in the end, it’s the parents’ own paranoia and security that cost them their son.

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Indeed, “Once Upon a Time” possesses a few elements which could be construed as commercial fiction. However, the majority of the story presents traits that are ingredients for a piece of literary fiction. The plot presents a rather unhappy ending which causes the reader to reflect rather than relax. Although commercial fiction utilizes morals, this story reveals the complexities between security and freedom.

Characterization essentially is nonexistent; readers are forced to create their own perceptions and images of the family and their personalities. The point of view and use of irony also contribute to the story’s literariness. “Once Upon a Time” may seem like a simple bedtime story created by a man’s dream, but on the contrary, it presents a unique fictional story containing many different complex literary elements.

Works Cited

Gordimer, Nadine. “Once Upon a Time.” Perrine’s Literature. Eds. Thomas R. Arp

and Greg Johnson. Boston: Thomson Higher Education, 2006. 220-25. Print.

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Analysis of Nadine Gordimer's Once Upon a Time. (2021, Sep 24). Retrieved August 14, 2022, from