Nadine Gorodimer’s short stories Jump and Other Stories (1989), which were published by South African authors, is a collection of poignant, controversial stories that constantly challenge the status quo. Once Upon a Time (a short story) is a bedtime story that tells the story of a family from apartheid South Africa who experiences tragedy by expressing their fears to protect themselves against outside threats. Gordimer adheres to fairy-tale conventions throughout the story by using simple words and stereotypical phrases. She also breaks with fairy-tale conventions, starting with a parallel story outside the fairy-tale and a reverse order for formulaic events. These conventions, when combined, enhance the reader’s perception and increase the story’s literary worth exponentially.

Gordimer does not use more dramatic writing in her “bedtime stories” to preserve the simplicity of the fairy-tale style. Gordimer’s bedtime story begins with the words “in a home, in a suburb, or in a city, there were a husband and wife who loved very much.” (25). Gordimer’s opening line describes the simplicity of the setting via her parallelistic syntaxes and deliberately childish diction. Her repetitive writing style creates an easygoing mood for the reader but also sets a more serious tone for her. Another example is the multiple neighborhood warning signs that are posted in the neighborhood. Setting up conflict in the story is a simple way to remind the characters to protect themselves from invaders. The reminder continues throughout the story and changes the mood of the characters, making them feel more serious. Gordimer follows a fairy-tale convention in her simplistic approach to bedtime stories. The husband’s mother is often referred to as the “wise old Witch” by characters (28). In this manner, the grandmother’s name is used to remind readers of fairy-tale lingo as well as the basic method of assigning archetypes for every character possible. Gordimer refers to the “Prince that braves thicket…and loves the Sleeping Beauty…” (30) and describes the boy as he goes on adventures, reenacting the story he is reading. The story references Sleeping Beauty. It is here that the Dragon-teeth Barbed Wire fencing symbolises and parallels the thicket that Prince navigates through. Gordimer’s use fairy-tale stereotypes in her stories, which often lowers the literary value and importance of a story, raises their value tenfold.

Gordimer has included an autobiographical frame story in her text that contrasts with the story’s similarities to other fairy tales. In the frame story’s premise the narrator was asked to create a short story for children’s anthology books. She replied “I don’t think children stories” (23). Paradoxically though, her honest statement matches the fact that she later accidentally says that she is writing a bedtime novel, which ironically is a story that children will associate with regardless of whether or not she disagrees. One night, while pondering the ordeal, the narrator hears a creaking sound in her home. Despite being adamant about the sound, she later admitted to the reader that she had no burglar bars. She also said that she was afraid of people who did take precautions (23-24). Thematically, this frame story is a continuation of the fairy-tale. While burglar bars are one of her characters’ precautions against outside dangers, it does not protect all homeowners from their paranoia. In each case, the autobiographical story frame and bedtime story compliment one another in a way that is both illuminating and enlightening.

Gordimer also breaks with conventions by inverting the order of the fairy tale formula. Gordimer’s bedtime story begins with her family living happily ever after (25). The story is in direct contradiction to the “Disneyfied”, modern-day formula. Gordimer ends the story by executing her “bleeding mass” reverse order. Gordimer’s violent ending could be mistaken for a resemblance to the Grimm Brothers’ original fairy-tales. But, in modernized contexts, it can still be seen as an exception. Gordimer’s story has a unique twist that brings out the dark themes.

Gordimer’s overall style is a complex mix of conventions and her own unique style. While the story is focused on South Africans in the contexts of apartheid, it can be used to apply to any culture or society throughout history. Gordimer effortlessly communicates both the cultural importance of her story and its artistic merit to literary critics by illustrating different conventions of conformity.


  • benjaminchambers

    Benjamin Chambers is an educator and blogger who focuses on using technology in the classroom. He has written for sites like The Huffington Post and The EdTech Digest, and has been featured in outlets like Forbes and The New York Times. Chambers' work has helped him to develop a following of educators and students who appreciate his down-to-earth approach to learning technology.