Once Upon a Time Summary

Once Upon a Time Summary

Q. Write down the summary of the short story One Upon a Time by Nadine Gordimer.


Once Upon a Time is a thought-provoking short story by Nadine Gordimer, first published in her “Jump and Other Stories” collection in 1991.

The tale begins with Gordimer reflecting on a request to write a children’s story. She is initially reluctant, feeling her writing is not suitable for children.

However, after a night of unrest and fear due to nearby crimes, she finds herself crafting a bedtime story.

This story within a story vividly portrays the impacts of fear and security measures, set against the backdrop of a society divided by racial and social lines, reminiscent of apartheid-era South Africa.

The Family’s Life

In “Once Upon a Time,” a family living in a suburb leads a comfortable and happy life. The family comprises a man, his wife, and their young son.

They have a pet cat and dog and enjoy the luxury of a swimming pool, car, and caravan for holidays. Their home is cared for by a trusted housemaid and a reliable gardener.

The family’s life seems ideal, filled with love and security within their home. They are a typical suburban family, enjoying the pleasures of a stable and prosperous life, yet unaware of the impending changes that will challenge their sense of safety.

Growing Security Concerns

The family in “Once Upon a Time” starts to worry about their safety due to increasing crime in their area. They hear about burglaries and violent incidents happening nearby.

This fear leads them to upgrade the security of their homes, installing electronic gates, burglar bars, and alarm systems.

Their house turns into a sort of fortress, reflecting their growing anxiety. Even with these measures, the family’s concern about potential dangers continues to rise.

The story captures the family’s shift from a comfortable life to one overshadowed by the fear of crime, leading them to take extreme steps to protect themselves.

The Ultimate Security Measure

As fear escalates, the family in “Once Upon a Time” decides on a drastic security upgrade. They install razor wire, known as “Dragon’s Teeth,” around their home’s walls.

This wire is extremely sharp and designed to prevent anyone from climbing over. It is the most severe security measure they take to keep out intruders. The family believes this will provide ultimate protection.

However, the razor wire is not just a barrier against outsiders; it also represents a significant escalation in their fear and the lengths they are willing to go to for security.

This decision marks a turning point in the story, leading to unforeseen and tragic consequences.

Tragic Irony

In a tragic twist, the family’s extreme security measures in “Once Upon a Time” led to a heartbreaking accident.

The little boy, playing a game and imagining himself as a prince, tries to climb the wall with the razor wire. He gets caught in the wire.

The same security intended to protect the family becomes a dangerous trap for their son. His parents, housemaid, and gardener rush to help him, but he is badly hurt.

This moment highlights the irony of the situation: the very measures taken for safety become the source of their worst nightmare.


“Once Upon a Time” by Nadine Gordimer ends with a powerful message. The story shows how extreme fear can lead to tragic outcomes. The family’s efforts to protect themselves with high security harm their child.

This irony underlines the dangers of letting fear control our actions. Gordimer’s tale reminds us that sometimes what we do to feel safe can unexpectedly turn into more significant risk, predominantly when driven by deep-seated anxieties and societal pressures.

Short Questions

Q. Why is the mother of the man called a witch?

In Nadine Gordimer’s “Once Upon a Time,” the man’s mother is called a “wise old witch.” This characterization is symbolic and serves several purposes in the story:

Fairy Tale Motif: The story is structured as a bedtime or fairy tale. In many traditional fairy tales, witches play significant roles, sometimes as sources of wisdom and others as bringers of challenges or curses.
By calling her a “wise old witch,” Gordimer is tapping into this fairy tale motif, lending a surreal, allegorical narrative.

Irony: There is a level of irony in referring to her as a “witch.” Though meant to safeguard her family, her advice about security and protection indirectly leads to the story’s tragic outcome.

This irony underlines that the measures we take to protect ourselves can sometimes result in unforeseen harm.

Influence and Control: The term may also imply her significant influence over her son and his family. Like a witch in a fairy tale who casts a spell, her advice and viewpoints significantly shape the actions and decisions of her son’s family, leading to the eventual tragic consequences.

Q. What is the significance of the dragon’s teeth?

The phrase “Dragon’s Teeth” in Nadine Gordimer’s “Once Upon a Time” is highly significant and carries multiple layers of meaning:

Mythological Reference: The term “Dragon’s Teeth” refers to a myth from Greek mythology. According to the myth, when dragon’s teeth were sown, they would grow into fully armed warriors.

This allusion is symbolic in the story – the razor-wire security system that the family installs, referred to as “Dragon’s Teeth,” is meant to protect them but instead brings violence and harm, much like the warriors that sprang from the dragon’s teeth in the myth.

Aggression and Danger: It is named after World War II concrete blocks that stopped tanks, showing the family’s extreme fear. They made their house like a war zone, which sadly ended up hurting their child.

Historical military reference to the name “Dragon’s Teeth” also adds a layer of irony and foreboding to the story.

In their pursuit of safety, the family chooses a security measure with a name that evokes danger and destruction. This choice foreshadows the tragic events that unfold later in the story.

Security Measures: The name “Dragon’s Teeth” for a security system is a commentary on the extreme and often dehumanizing lengths people go to to feel safe.

It suggests that people can unwittingly unleash something monstrous and uncontrollable in trying to protect themselves.

Leave a comment