I. What is a Parable?
A parable (pronounced PAIR-uh-bull) is a short story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. It comes from a Greek word meaning “comparison.”
II. Examples of Parable
Perhaps the most famous parable is that of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. In it, a young boy enjoys yelling “wolf” and laughing as the adults in his village run around in a panic. But one day, he sees an actual wolf, and cries out “wolf” to try and get someone to save him. But no one believes him anymore, and no one comes to help. This story is extremely memorable for children, and seems to stick in our minds better than the simple statement “don’t lie.”
A famous parable in Western literature is that of the Good Samaritan. In this short story, Jesus is illustrating what it means to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” He tells a story about a traveller being beaten and robbed on the road. Several people pass by without offering help, but finally a Samaritan comes along, dresses the man’s wounds, and helps him get to a nearby inn. The lesson is that we should always be ready to help those in need, and the popularity of the phrase “Good Samaritan” in the modern world shows how influential the story has been.
III. The Importance of Parables
As human beings, we respond more strongly to stories than to arguments and theories. Our brains seem to be hard-wired to think in terms of narratives, and parables usually affect us more deeply than simple principles stated out loud. For example, if you were told the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf as a child, you probably remember it pretty well – that story has a profound impact on many children because of its simplicity and the grim fate of its main character. If an adult simply told you not to lie, you may not have understood why, but the story makes the lesson as clear as can be.
IV. Examples of Parable in Literature
Each Canto (chapter) of Dante’s Inferno can be read as a short parable. In each chapter, the poet walks to a new region of Hell and sees a different kind of sinner being punished in a unique and poetically appropriate manner. These tales are intended to help the reader realize the nature of sin and of God’s design as a whole.
The timeless fables of Aesop are parables – specifically, they are apologues. “The Fox and the Grapes,” for example, tells of a fox who is frustrated because she cannot reach some grapes hanging off a ledge. She finally gives up, bitterly pronouncing that she does not want the grapes after all – but really she’s just annoyed that she can’t have them. This shows an extremely common human behavior of pretending not to want something merely because it is beyond our reach.
V. Examples of Parable in Popular Culture
There are two wolves fighting in each man’s heart. One is Love, the other is Hate.
Which one wins?
The one you feed the most.
This short parable from the movie Pathfinder expresses the importance of self-control and the fact that emotions can be self-reinforcing. The lesson is that we can make a conscious choice to engage with our more positive emotions rather than negative ones. However, by expressing that lesson through a story, the parable makes it much more memorable and colorful.
The “Parable of the Polygons” is an interactive online story about prejudice. In it, players must try to rearrange a fictional “society” so that everyone is happy and no one is out of place. Yet they discover that this is almost impossible due to small, almost imperceptible biases held by the imaginary “characters.” In the end, we see that a segregated and biased society can occur even when its members are tolerant and broad-minded. Though it’s expressed through a game rather than a traditional story, this parable works the same as any other – it absorbs players just like a good story absorbs readers, and delivers its lesson in a highly memorable way.
VI. Related Terms
“Exemplum” means “example,” and it often refers to a story used to illustrate a point. Thus, a parable is one type of exemplum – it’s an exemplum illustrating a specifically moral point.
Morality Play (or Morality Tale)
These days, you’ll often hear the term “morality play/tale” applied to parables. People sometimes use this term, for example, to refer to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” But technically, a morality tale has a narrower meaning. It’s a short story that tells a moral lesson by having moral concepts as characters.
For example, in a classic morality tale you might have a character walking along down the street when Wrath or Lust appears to tempt the main character off the righteous path. Then Temperance or Patience might appear and make counter-arguments, and ultimately the character will learn something about the nature of morality. When you think of a morality play/tale, think of the moments in cartoon movies when an angel and a devil appear on the main character’s shoulders to try and sway their decisions. This is the modern equivalent of the classical morality play.
When a parable has exaggerated details and whimsical features such as talking animals, it’s sometimes known as an apologue. Apologue is one of the most popular types of parable, especially for telling stories to children (Aesop’s Fables, for example, are generally apologues).