Though fairy tales may tell readers that their lives are shaped by their fate, the alternative fairy tale presented in the short story "Once Upon a Time" by Nadine Gordimer tells the reader something else: that people shape their own destinies. The theme of the short story is that people create their own downfall or destruction. A secondary theme is that people cannot allow themselves to be ruled by fear.
The people in the narrator's fairy tale live in a nice neighborhood, but as riots take place nearby and a few houses are robbed, the residents begin to install more and more security measures, such as iron gates, bars on the windows and alarm systems. However, with every step the residents take to protect themselves, they actually cause themselves more harm. The faulty alarm systems actually give the burglars a chance to rob them because the neighbors become accustomed to ignoring the alarms, and the burglars can move about without being detected. At the end, a young boy is killed by trying to climb over the barbed wire fence -- that his parents had installed -- while he is playing a game of make believe. Because of their fear, the characters actually bring about their own demise.