Definition of Parable

A parable is a short, didactic story that is meant to teach a moral or principal. Parables use human characters in believable situations so that the reader or listener feels able to relate. There are many examples of parables in religious texts such as the Bible and the Quran.

The word parable comes from the Greek word παραβολή (parabolē), which means “a comparison,” “an illustration,” or “an analogy.” Indeed, parables employ analogies in the sense that an analogy is a comparison between two things in order to explain similarities.

Difference Between Parable, Fable, and Allegory

The definition of parable is very similar to that of fable and that of allegory in different ways. Both parable examples and fables are used to teach a lesson via a short story; however, parables use humans as the characters, whereas the main characters in fables are animals, plants, forces of nature, and other inanimate objects.

Allegories usually use human characters, just like parable. However, allegories are not necessarily created in order to be didactic. Instead, in an allegory the characters, setting, and/or images stand in as symbols for other people and things. An allegory may teach a lesson (sometimes a much more complicated one than that in an example of a parable), but it’s function is symbolic rather than didactic.

Common Examples of Parable

There are many examples of parables that have entered common knowledge, several of which are from the Bible. The first two parable examples below are from the Bible, and the third is from Aesop’s fables.

  • The Good Samaritan: A man traveling along the road is beaten and left for dead. A priest and Levite pass him, doing nothing, but then a Samaritan comes and helps the man. Samaritans and Jews were generally enemies at the time, and thus this parable is meant to illustrate the importance of showing compassion to everyone, even a sworn enemy.
  • The Prodigal Son: A father has two sons, the younger of which asks for his inheritance before the father dies and ends up wasting all of his money. He returns home, and when he returns the father is so glad he holds a large feast as a celebration. The older brother is upset, but the father explains that what was lost is now found and should be celebrated, no matter what has happened in between.
  • The Boy Who Cried Wolf: Aesop tells the story of a bored shepherd boy who calls out “wolf” to get the attention of his fellow villagers. He does so several times, always annoying them when they realize he is lying. One day he sees a real wolf which scatters the sheep, but no one comes to help him when he calls out.

Some actual historical events are referenced as types of real-life parables that we should learn from. For example, the financial crash of 2008 is sometimes used as a parable for the fallacy of some banks being “too big to fail.”

Significance of Parable in Literature

Parables are generally simple narratives, and easy for anyone to follow and glean the chief message. There is often a character involved who has made a bad decision earlier in life, or in the story, and must face the consequences. Parables thus contain a subtext of how to lead a moral life and how to behave.

Examples of Parable in Literature

Example #1

Because I severed those so
joined, I carry – alas – my brain dissevered from its source,
which is within my trunk. And thus, in me
one sees the law of counter-penalty.

(The Inferno by Dante)

In Dante’s Inferno, the narrator (a fictional version of Dante himself) is led through Hell by his mentor and guide, a fictional version of the poet Virgil. Virgil shows Dante how different people who sinned during life are treated in death; indeed, there is a sense of poetic justice to the punishment of all sinners. The punishment each receives is related to the primary crime he committed during life. For example, the French medieval troubadour featured above, Bertran de Born, explains that he “severed those so joined” (i.e., fomented rebellion of Henry the Young King against his father) and thus he is forced for eternity to carry his brain severed from his body.

Example #2

So off went the Emperor in procession under his splendid canopy. Everyone in the streets and the windows said, “Oh, how fine are the Emperor’s new clothes! Don’t they fit him to perfection? And see his long train!” Nobody would confess that he couldn’t see anything, for that would prove him either unfit for his position, or a fool. No costume the Emperor had worn before was ever such a complete success.

“But he hasn’t got anything on,” a little child said.

(“The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen)

Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is an excellent example of parable. It concerns an emperor who loves nothing so much as new clothing who is fooled by a pair of swindlers who promise him that they can weave fabric that is invisible to those who are unworthy of their stations. They weave nothing and pocket the gold, but no one wants to admit he cannot see the fabric for fear that this means he is unfit for his office, including the king. Thus, the king parades around town completely nude, everyone hoping to keep their unworthiness a secret. It’s only when a child points out the obvious—the king is naked—that others start to catch on that it was all a trick.

Example #3

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

(A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)

In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is met by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley. Scrooge is horrified to see Marley holding chains in the afterlife, and learns that the bad choices Marley made in life are now haunting him. As is the case with all parable examples, this story is meant for Scrooge as well as the reader to learn how to behave properly in life.

Example #4

“What you still need to know is this: before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that was learned along the way. It does this not because it is evil, but so that we can, in addition to realizing our dreams, master the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve moved toward that dream. That’s the point at which, as we say in the language of the desert, one ‘dies of thirst just when the palm trees have appeared on the horizon.’
“Every search begins with beginner’s luck. And every search ends with the victor’s being severely tested.”

(The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho)

Paulo Coelho’s popular novel The Alchemist is an example of a parable about following one’s dreams. There are many smaller tales within the overall narrative which prove the greater point, which is that we are put on the world to follow our dreams, but the world will also test our resolve along the way to strengthen us.

Test Your Knowledge of Parable

1. Which of the following statements is the best parable definition?
A. A short narrative which is meant to teach a lesson by using human characters.
B. A succinct story that uses animals or inanimate objects as characters to show a moral principle.
C. A long story in which the characters and images act as symbols.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following statements is true?
A. Allegories are the opposite concept to parables, as they do not purport to teach anything.
B. All parables carry a subtext of showing the listener or reader how to live a good life.
C. Parables always contain at least one animal as a character.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Consider the following quote from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol:

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

How does this function as an example of parable?
A. Jacob Marley was arrested during his lifetime, and thus his afterlife reflects this.
B. Ebenezer Scrooge doesn’t believe Jacob Marley, and thus his image has no affect on Scrooge.
C. Jacob Marley’s chains are representative of the ills he chose to commit against humanity while alive, and teach Scrooge what he is doing to himself while still alive.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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