Fairy Tales: Defining Characteristics

Although no formal statement concerning fairytales has ever been agreed upon, fairytales are one specific branch of folklore all having similar attributes that are distinct to their branch.

The short story “Once Upon a Time” is not a fairytale because it portrays dynamic characters, it has no physical antagonist, but most importantly, it does not convey a mystical or magical atmosphere. Although no formal statement concerning fairytales has ever been agreed upon, fairytales are one specific branch of folklore all having similar attributes that are distinct to their branch.

Because the short story “Once Upon a Time” portrays dynamic characters, it cannot be categorized as a fairytale. At the start of the story, the husband living with his wife is described as living, “happily ever after” (Gordimer 55). However as the story progresses the husband changes in his views of security. He begins to set up more and more security systems, “[he had] burglar bars attached to the doors and windows of the house, and an alarm system installed” (56). By the end of the story he had converted his home into a fortress, “they paused before this barricade… both came out with the conclusion that only one was worth considering” (57). In a similar way the wife changes from being gracious and sympathetic, “She [the wife] could not see anyone go hungry” (57) to shutting the poor out, “‘The wall should be higher’ [said the wife]” (57). In many of the classic fairytales, such as “Snow White”, “Cinderella”, “Rapunzel”, and, “The Three Little Pigs” the protagonists do not change in character, but rather remain static. Since the protagonists in “Once Upon a Time” (the husband and wife) are dynamic characters and classic fairytale characters are not, this story cannot be a fairytale.

Another defining characteristic of fairytales that this short story does not have is a physical antagonist. The antagonists of “Snow White” and “Rapunzel” are witches, while the antagonist of “Cinderella” is the evil stepmother and her two daughters, and that of “The Three Little Pigs” is a wolf. All the antagonists of these stories are physical beings. However, the antagonist of “Once Upon a Time” is the husband and wife’s unquenchable desire for safety. It may be misinterpreted that the robbers are the antagonists, but if the homeowners were to rid their suspicion of the unemployed and hire more workers, robbery would dramatically decrease. In this way, the problem lies within the protagonists themselves and is not present physically. Because the antagonist of “Once Upon a Time” is not physical whereas in the classic fairytales it/he is, this story lacks one of the crucial characteristics of accepted fairytales.

The most obvious difference between “Once Upon a Time” and conventional fairytales is that there is no magic present in the story. Every story that falls under the title of fairytales must contain some shape or form of magic which causes the story to become unrealistic. However, this short story could very well happen. It does not take place in a land far, far away but “in a suburb, in a city” (55). The characters are not fantastical heroes or descendants of royal blood, but simply “a man and his wife [and] a little boy” (55). The closest to magic or sorcery the story comes to is the “wise old witch” (55) who is really only the husband’s mother. As this story does not contain any form of magic, fantastical characters, or farfetched events, it lacks the single most unique and defining characteristic of fairytales, denouncing it from being a fairytale.

As the short story “Once Upon a Time” has dynamic instead of static characters, mental instead of physical antagonists, and lacks the magic and fantasy present in all accepted fairytales, it is deficient of the key, defining characteristics of the classics, therefore denouncing it from being a fairytale.

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