A parable is a story that is told to illustrate a religious, moral or philosophical idea. In rhetoric, a parable ('comparison' or 'similitude') was originally the name given by Greek rhetoricians to any fictive illustration introduced in the form of a brief narrative. Later it came to mean a fictitious narrative or allegory (generally something that might naturally occur) by which moral or spiritual relations are typically set forth, as in the New Testament. The parable differs from the apologue in the inherent probability of a realistic story, one taking place in some familiar setting of life. In its brevity and succinctness a parable is like a fable; it differs from the fable by excluding animals that assume speech and other powers of humankind, as in Aesop's fables.
A parable is like a metaphor that has been extended to form a brief, coherent fiction. Unlike a simile, its parallel meaning is unspoken, implicit, but not ordinarily secret, though "to speak in parables" has come to suggest obscurity.
Parables often involve a character facing a particular moral dilemma, or making a questionable decision and then suffering the consequences of that choice. Though not every moral narrative is a parable, many fairy tales would be viewed as extended parables, except for their magical settings. Though parables often have a strong prescriptive subtext, suggesting how a person should behave or believe, many parables simply explore a concept from a neutral point of view. Aside from providing guidance and suggestions for proper action in life, parables offer a metaphorical language which allows people to discuss difficult or complex ideas more easily. Recently there has been some interest in the field of contemporary parable, exploring how modern stories can be used as parables in our current culture. For a mid-19th century contemporary parable, see the Parable of the broken window that exposes a fallacy in economic thinking.
Parables are strongly favored in the expression of spiritual concepts. The best known specific source of parables is the Bible, which contains numerous parables. Besides the familiar parables of Jesus in the New Testament, such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, there are many beautiful examples of parable in the Old Testament, for instance the parable of the ewe-lamb told by Nathan in 2 Samuel 12:1—9, or that of the woman of Tekoah in 2 Samuel 9:1—13.
Parable and allegory are often treated as synonyms, but are well distinguished by H. W. Fowler, in Modern English Usage. "The object in each" said Fowler, "is to enlighten the hearer by submitting to him a case in which he has apparently no direct concern, and upon which therefore a disinterested judgment may be elicited from him." It then dawns upon the listener or reader that the conclusion applies equally well to his own concerns.
As Fowler distinguished them, parable is more condensed than allegory: a single principle comes to bear, and a single moral is deduced. Medieval biblical criticism often treated Jesus's parables as detailed allegories, with symbolic correspondences found for every element in the brief narratives, but modern critics universally regard these interpretations as inappropriate and untenable.
Like a fable's narration, a parable should relate one simple, consistent action without extraneous detail nor distracting circumstances. In Plato's The Republic, parables like the shadows in the cave embody abstract argument in a concrete, more easily grasped narrative.
Last updated: 06-01-2005 22:40:52