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Once upon a Time, Nadine Gordimer, 1989.
Reading corner

Once upon a time

Reading corner - part 1
Reading corner - part 2
Reading corner - part 3
Reading corner - part 4
Reading corner - part 5

[...] In a house, in a suburb, in a city, there were a man and his wife who loved each other very much and were living happily ever after. They had a little boy, and they loved him very much. They had a cat and a dog that the little boy loved very much. They had a car and a van for holidays, and a fenced swimming pool so the little boy and his friends would not fall in and drown. They had a trustworthy housemaid and a gardener who was highly recommended by the neighbors. For when they began to live happily ever after they were warned, by that wise old witch, the husband’s mother, not to take people off the street. Their pet dog was licensed, they were insured, and the local Neighborhood Watch gave them with a sign for their gates lettered YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED over the figure of a robber. He was masked; it could not be said if he was black or white, and showed the homeowner was no racist.

It was not possible to insure the house, the swimming pool, or the car against riot damage. There were riots, but these were outside the city, where people of another color lived. These people were not allowed into the suburb except as housemaids and gardeners, so there was nothing to fear, the husband told the wife. Yet she was afraid that some day such people might come up the street and tear off the sign YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED and open the gates and come in. Nonsense, my dear, said the husband, there are police and soldiers and tear gas and guns to keep them away. But to please her — for he loved her very much and buses were being burned, cars broken into, and school children shot by the police in neighborhoods out of sight and hearing of the suburb — he put electronically controlled gates around the house.

The riots were stopped, but there were many robberies in the suburb and somebody’s housemaid was tied up by thieves. The housemaid of the man and wife and little boy was so upset by this that she asked her employers to have bars attached to the doors and windows of the house, and an alarm system put in. The wife said, she is right, let us listen to her. So from every window and door in the house where they were living happily ever after they now saw the trees and sky through bars.

[...] But every week there were more reports of break-ins: in daylight and the middle of the night, in the early hours of the morning, and even in the lovely summer twilight.

When the man and wife and little boy took the pet dog for its walk around the neighborhood they no longer looked at the houses hidden behind security fences and walls. While the little boy and the pet dog raced ahead, the husband and wife decided only one security system was worth buying. It was the ugliest but the most honest. Placed the length of walls, it was a long coil of shining metal blades, so there would be no way of climbing over it and no way through without getting stuck in its fangs. There would be no way out, only a struggle getting bloodier and bloodier, a deeper and sharper hooking and tearing of flesh. The wife shook to look at it. You’re right, said the husband, anyone would think twice. And they noticed a small sign on the wall: Call DRAGON’S TEETH The People For Total Security.

The next day, workmen came and put razor-bladed coils around the walls of the house. The sunlight flashed and slashed, off the blades, the razor thorns circled the home, shining.

One evening, the mother read the little boy to sleep with a fairy story from the book the wise old witch had given him at Christmas. The next day he pretended to be the Prince who braves the thorns to enter the palace and kiss the Sleeping Beauty back to life: he set a ladder next to the wall, the shining coiled tunnel was just wide enough for his little body to crawl in, and with the first fixing of its razor teeth in his knees and hands and head he screamed and struggled deeper into its tangle. The trusted housemaid and the gardener, whose “day” it was, came running, the first to see and to scream with him, and the gardener tore his hands trying to get at the little boy. Then the man and his wife burst wildly into the garden and for some reason (the cat, probably) the alarm set off against the screams while the bleeding mass of the little boy was hacked out of the security coil with saws and wire cutters, and they carried it—the man, the wife, the hysterical trusted housemaid, and the weeping gardener—into the house.

Once upon a Time, Nadine Gordimer, 1989.
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a) List the different protagonists and how they are related.

b) How are the people outside town referred to? What does it show about the couple's feelings towards them?

c) Where can you suppose the story is set? Why?

d) List all the actions the couple take to protect their house. What conclusion can you make?

e) What are the main topics Nadine Gordimer tackles in her story?

f) List the various elements which are similar to a fairy tale in this short story.

g) Why do you believe the expression “you have been warned” is repeated several times throughout the short story? Who could be this "you"?



Nadine Gordimer, (born November 20th, 1923, Springs, Transvaal [now in Gauteng], South Africa — died July 13, 2014, Johannesburg), is a South African novelist and short-story writer. Her major themes were exile and alienation. She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.

Gordimer was born into a privileged white middleclass family and began reading at an early age. By the age of 9 she was writing, and she published her first story in a magazine when she was 15. Her taste for reading informed her about the world on the other side of Apartheid — the official South African policy of racial segregation — and that discovery, in time, developed into strong political opposition to Apartheid.

Your time to shine!

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Write the entry to the housemaid’s diary (150 words). It can be before or after the event.

Make sure your work is organised:
  • Paragraph 1: what happened (use of preterit).
  • Paragraph 2: how the maid feels about the situation in the country (use of present perfect or simple present).
  • Paragraph 3: what she may expect as from now (wish, hope, want to / would like to + V…).


Reinvest the ideas and the vocabulary studied in this unit.

Make sure you know how to use the different verb forms too.

Organise your arguments.

Méthode je m'exprime à l'écrit p. 244
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