Parables and Fables: From Symbolism to Allegory?
and fables are easily confused with one another. Symbolism and allegory
are similarly mixed-up in too many students' minds. Here's the
In common parlance, a parable is a story or short
narrative designed to reveal allegorically some religious principle,
moral lesson, psychological reality, or general truth. Rather than using
abstract discussion, a parable always teaches by comparison with real
or literal occurrences--especially "homey" everyday occurrences a wide
number of people can relate to. The word parable comes from Greek term
parábol! (pará means "beside," plus
bol!, which means "a casting, putting, throwing, turning"), which the Romans called parabola in classical rhetoric.
examples of parables include those found in the synoptic Gospels, such
as "The Prodigal Son" and "The Good Samaritan." In some Gospel versions,
the parables are announced with the phrase, "The Kingdom of God is like
. . . ." Technically speaking, biblical "parables" were originally
examples of a Hebrew genre called meshalim
(singular mashal), a word
lacking a counter-part in Greek, Latin or English. Meshalim in Hebrew
refer to "mysterious speech," i.e., spiritual riddles or enigmas the
speaker couches in story-form. It is only in the Greek New Testament
that these meshalim are conflated with allegorical readings.
Non-religious works may serve as parables as well. For example,
Melville's Billy Budd demonstrates that absolute good --such as the
impressionable, naïve young sailor--may not co-exist with absolute
evil--the villain Claggart.
Fable: A fable is also a brief story
illustrating a moral. Unlike the parables, fables often include talking
animals or animated objects as the principal characters. The interaction
of these animals or inanimate things reveals general truths about human
nature, i.e., a person can learn practical lessons from the fictional
antics in a fable.
However, the lesson learned is not allegorical.
Each animal is not necessarily a symbol for something else. Instead, the
reader learns the lesson as an exemplum--an example of what one should
or should not do. The sixth century (BCE) Greek writer Aesop is most
famous as an author of fables, but Phaedrus and Babrius in the first
expanded on his works. A famous collection of Indian
fables was the Sanskrit Bidpai (circa 300 CE), and in the medieval
period, Marie de France (c. 1200 CE) composed 102 fables in verse. After
the 1600s, fables increasingly became common as a form of children's
Symbolism versus Allegory:
is a word, place, character, or object that means something beyond what
it is on a literal level. Symbolism is the act of using a word, place,
character, or object in such a way. For instance, consider the stop
sign. It is literally a metal octagon painted red with white streaks.
However, everyone on the road will be much safer if we understand that
this object also represents the act of coming to a complete stop--an
idea hard to encompass briefly without some sort of symbolic substitute.
An object, a setting, or even a character in literature can represent
another, more general idea. Note, however, that symbols function
perfectly well in isolation from other symbols as long as the reader
already knows their assigned meaning. Allegory, however, does not work
that way; allegory requires
symbols working in conjunction with each other.
allegory involves using many interconnected symbols or allegorical
figures in such as way that in nearly every element of the narrative has
a meaning beyond the literal level, i.e., everything in the narrative
is a symbol that relates to other symbols within the story. The
allegorical story, poem, or play can be read either literally or as a
statement about a political, spiritual, or psychological truth. The
word allegory derives from the Greek allegoria ("speaking otherwise"):
The term loosely describes any story in verse or prose that has a double
This narrative acts as an extended metaphor in which the
plot or events reveal a meaning beyond what occurs in the text, creating
a moral, spiritual, or even political meaning. The act of interpreting a
story as if each object in it had
an allegorical meaning is called allegoresis.
we wish to be more exact, an allegory is an act of interpretation--a
way of understanding--rather than a genre in and of itself. Poems,
novels, or plays can all be allegorical. These can be as short as a
single sentence or as long as a ten-volume book. The label "allegory"
comes from an interaction between symbols that creates a coherent
beyond that of the literal level of interpretation. Probably the most
famous allegory in English literature is John Bunyan's Pilgrim's
Progress (1678), in which the hero Everyman flees the City of
Destruction and travels
through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Vanity Fair, Doubting Castle, and finally arrives at the Celestial City.
entire narrative represents the average human soul's pilgrimage through
temptation and doubt to reach salvation in heaven. Other important
allegorical works include mythological allegories like Apuleius' tale of
Cupid and Psyche in The Golden Ass and Prudentius' Psychomachia. More
recent, non-mythological allegories include Swift's
Gulliver's Travels, Butler's Erewhon, and George Orwell's Animal Farm.
following illustrative passage comes from page 22 of J. A. Cuddon's
Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 3rd edition. (Penguin
Books, 1991). I have Americanized the British spelling and punctuation:
distinguish more clearly we can take the old Arab fable of the frog and
the scorpion, who met one day on the bank of the River Nile, which they
both wanted to cross. The frog offered to ferry the scorpion over on
his back provided the scorpion promised not to sting him. The scorpion
agreed so long as the frog would promise not to drown him. The mutual
promises exchanged, they crossed the river. On the far bank the scorpion
stung the frog mortally.
"Why did you do that?" croaked the frog, as it lay dying.
"Why?" replied the scorpion, "We're both Arabs, aren't we?"
If we substitute for a frog a "Mr. Goodwill" or a "Mr. Prudence," and for the scorpion "Mr.
Treachery" or "Mr. Two-Face," and make the river any river and substitute for "We're both
"We're both men . . ." we turn the fable [which illustrates human
tendencies by using animals as illustrative examples] into an allegory
[a narrative in which each character and action has symbolic meaning].
On the other hand, if we turn the frog into a father and the scorpion
into a son (boatman and passenger) and we have the son say "We're both
sons of God, aren't we?", then we have a parable (if a rather cynical
one) about the wickedness of human nature and the sin of parricide.