The time and physical setting of “Once Upon a Time” by Nadine Gordimer is not explicitly specified, which at first glance seems like a typical fairy-tale feature. However, several hints indicate that the events take place somewhere in South Africa, during the time when the apartheid system was in place. Apartheid was a political system of racial discrimination, which was in place from 1948 until the 1990s. This setting is reinforced by the description of the white suburban neighborhood and the fact that Gordimer frequently sets her stories in South Africa during the apartheid regime.
The physical setting of the outer story is the writer’s house. At nighttime, the writer is startled by strange noises she hears in the house. The writer reveals that her suspicions that a perpetrator has entered the house were invalid, as the noises were caused by a mining site over which the house is built. Symbolically, the writer’s house might represent the separation between black and white South Africans. While black people historically worked in mines, the writer – a white woman – lives comfortably in a house above the mine.
In the inner story, the physical setting mainly focuses on the white family’s property and on its surroundings. As the narrative shows, the white family lives “happily ever after” “in a house, in a suburb, in a city”. These expressions remind readers of fairy-tales, where the physical setting is usually vague. The wording a...