Imagery and Structure in Nadine Gordimer's "Once upon a Time"

By Shurgot, Michael | Journal of Literary Studies, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Imagery and Structure in Nadine Gordimer's "Once upon a Time"


Shurgot, Michael, Journal of Literary Studies


Summary

In Nadine Gordimer's story "Once upon a Time" published originally in 1989, the white child caught in the barbed wire and then violently ripped free symbolises not only the death of white supremacy but also the birth of a new South African society. The multiple ironies of imagery and structure brilliantly clarify Gordimer's inverted fairy tale of a Yeatsian "terrible beauty".

Opsomming

Nadine Gordimer se verhaal "Once upon a Time" (oorpronklik gepubliseer in 1989) vertel van 'n wit kind wat in doringdraad verstrengel is en dan met geweld losgeskeur word. Dit simboliseer sowel die einde van wit oorheersing as die geboorte van 'n nuwe Suid-Afrikaanse bestel. Gordimer se omgekeerde feeverhaal oor 'n "verskriklike skoonheid" (wat aan Yeats herinner) word op 'n briljante wyse deur die veelvuldige ironiee van beeldspraak en struktuur belig.

**********

[W]hat we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.

(Nafisi 2004: 3)

Writing about Nadine Gordimer's 1991 collection "Jump" and Other Stories, Karen Lazar noted Gordimer's being "attentive to the 'morbid symptoms' that characterize South Africa's interregnum and which show no signs of letting up as the 1990s proceed" (Lazar 1992a: 787). Lazar recalls Gordimer's use of the phrase "morbid symptoms" as the epigraph from her 1981 novel July's People, and its origin in Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks. (1) Writing in the mid- to late-1980s, as the South African government's apartheid policies began to unravel, Gordimer seemed acutely aware of the political and social changes happening around her. From an interview in February, 1991 Lazar quotes Gordimer's later statement about her sense of her commitments to both her writing and to South African society:

I think my purpose in life has never changed, it has been set simply on trying to write well, on trying to become a writer. But at the same time I am also a human being.... Writing is what I can do and I have put everything into it, whereas the things outside the writing, well, there are calculations there, those things are not done unreservedly. In other words, although I have given a lot of myself--and certainly all my conviction--to the struggle I have never given the whole of myself. There are many who may say that's my value, but perhaps on the contrary it's my limitation.

(Gordimer quoted by Nicol 1991:11 in Lazar 1992: 788)

Gordimer's sense of the strengths of these dual commitments is equally evident in her Nobel Prize Lecture "Writing and Being" from 1991:

The writer is of service to humankind only insofar as the writer uses the word even against his or her own loyalties, trusts the state of being, as it is revealed, to hold somewhere in its complexity filaments of the cord of truth, able to be bound together, here and there, in art; trusts the state of being to yield somewhere fragmentary phrases of truth, which is the final word of words, never changed by our stumbling efforts to spell it out and write it down, never changed by lies, by semantic sophistry, by the dirtying of the word for the purposes of racism, sexism, prejudice, domination, the glorification of destruction, the curses and the praise-songs.

(Gordimer 1999: 206)

Certainly much of Gordimer's fiction, especially from July's People (1981) and the stories in Something out There (1984) onward, can be viewed as working against the loyalties of the white South African society into which she was born. (2) In her important 1982 essay "Living in the Interregnum", Gordimer asserts that

"[t]he white writer has to make the decision whether to remain responsible to the dying white order ... or to declare himself positively as answerable to the order struggling to be bore.... And to declare himself for the latter is only the beginning.... I have entered into this commitment with trust and a sense of discovering reality, coming alive in a new way . …

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