Is there a term for stories that act to teach the reader (not the characters) a lesson without the use fantastical elements? For example, take a Raymond Carver short story. His characters are often self-absorbed and incredibly flawed, and a large portion of them do not learn anything by the time the story ends. To me, it feels similar to a fable in that the characters become something of a cautionary symbol for whatever vice they fall to (in the case of Carver: selfishness, alcohol, adultery, etc.), but there are no succinct, parable-ish lessons at the end (and certainly no talking animals). You see the narrator or main character fall deeper into a hole, and they often lose any ability to get themselves out. Through whatever struggle, the characters do not come out on top.

Is there a word for this? I don't think the term "gritty realism" is what I'm looking for (although it is applicable to Carver in particular), as not all gritty realism ends on a note of negativity (Take "A Small, Good Thing" or "Fever" for example). Cautionary Tale seems closer, but that still has some fable-like connotations.


You have actually used the word in your question: such tales are parables. The term parable often is given narrow application that refers to specifically a story from the Gospels that illustrates a specific moral teaching, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan.

But more broadly, the term is used in non-Biblical contexts too. For example, the stories of the 19th C Hindu teacher Ramakrishna Paramahamsa are also called parables, as can be seen at the website of a monastery of the order he founded. Here, in its entirety, is one of Ramakrishna's parables:

Once a man went to a certain place to see a theatrical performance, carrying a mat under his arm. Hearing that it would be some time before the performance began; he spread the mat on the floor and fell asleep. When he woke up all was over. Then he returned home with the mat under his arm!

Quoted by Mayank Bhatt in his blog, Generally About Books, entry for 28 February 2015. Accessed 4 January 2021.

Richard Eastman distinguishes between such brief, pointed narratives and more complex ones of the sort the question mentions (e.g., Carver). He says that Bible stories are closed parables. Discussing the Good Samaritan story, he says:

As itself—a parable, a brief and plausible allegory, a concrete analogue of a general ethical situation—Jesus' story stands single and unburied, a "closed" image.

When consistently expanded to include some complexity of incident, distinctness o characterization and fullness of setting, the closed parable becomes a story with its own narrative appeals. A list of examples would include Dickens' A Christmas Carol, George Eliot's Silas Marner, [etc.] ... In all, however, the ethical analogy which is the animating idea of the parable remains clearly distinguishable beneath a consistent narrative surface. (p. 17)

Eastman, Richard M. “The Open Parable: Demonstration and Definition.” College English, vol. 22, no. 1, 1960, pp. 15–18. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/373858. Accessed 4 Jan. 2021.

Eastman contrasts closed parables with modern works by writers such as Kafka and Beckett, which he calls open parables:

a small genre of modern narrative brought to high intensity by such writers as Kafka and Beckett. Its difficulties arise from the misapplication of conventional reading attitudes, usually abetted by the logical refusal of its authors to explain "intention." (ibid.)

He says that in an open parable, the ethical point of the narrative is not straightforward, but needs to be worked out by the reader. Furthermore, different readers may reach different conclusions about what that ethical point is:

Like a kind of literary Rorschach blot, the open parable apparently puts it up to the reader to perform the creative act, to take his own direction so that he may find, in the general richness of theme, an ethical pattern which speaks most directly to him. This is the first pleasure of the genre. But the open parable is a controlled and controlling art-work, not a random blot. ... The attentive reader will discover that no one expression will prove out as the meaning. (p. 18)

James Champion argues for a similar definition of parable without making the distinction between open and closed parable:

the parable is unusual not because of its great variations in length, but because it is a form in which substance is warranted to break through form. Parabolic form in both ancient and modern cultures is determined by the reach of substance. (p. 35)

Champion, James. “The Parable as an Ancient and a Modern Form.” Literature and Theology, vol. 3, no. 1, 1989, pp. 16–39. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23926661. Accessed 4 Jan. 2021.

By substance Champion means the narrative elements that force existential and philosophical reflections on the reader's part.

The term parable is used not just by academic scholars, but also by creative writers themselves. John Patrick Shanley's best-known play is the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning Doubt: A Parable, which tells the story of a priest whom a nun accuses of molesting one of his (male) teenage charges. The ethical dilemma that the play presents is not clearly resolved, but the spectator is left to ponder upon the story and draw out lessons. The action is structured such that spectators will differ on exactly what the lesson is.

These works, however, have a complexity that seems somewhat antithetical to the sort of story the question focuses on. It seems that you're interested specifically in stories where the character ends badly and thereby serves as a cautionary symbol. I'm not sure Carver's tales are as clearcut as that in their moral. But if you believe they impart straightforward moral lessons about alcoholism, adultery, etc., you could adopt Eastman's term and call them closed parables. Or you could simply refer to them as object lessons, which Merriam-Webster defines as:

something that serves as a practical example of a principle or abstract idea.

Or you could use another term included in your question: cautionary tales. The Cambridge Dictionary provides a broad and simple definition:

a story that gives a warning:

Her story is a cautionary tale for women traveling alone.

Cautionary tales aren't restricted to folklore, nor to animal characters. On the contrary, stories like "The Fox and the Grapes" or "The Ant and the Grasshopper" are always called fables, rarely if ever cautionary tales. Cautionary tales typically involve human beings who come to unfortunate ends due to their own foolish actions.


This type of literature is known as didactic literature; the term refers to any work of literature that aims to instruct the reader. Hesiod's Works and Days is an early Greek example; Lucretius's De rerum natura and Virgil's Georgica are two Latin examples.

The Middle Ages produced a lot of didactic literature, most of it in verse. Examples in Middle English include Robert Manning's Handlyng Synne (early fourteenth century), which contains stories illustrating the ten commandments, the seven deadly sins and the seven sacraments. John Gower's Confessio Amantis (late fourteenth century) contains instruction both in the frame story and in the digressions.

The genre of didactic literature was revived in the 18th century. Examples include John Philips's Cyder (1708), John Armstrong's The Art of Preserving Health (1744), John Dyer's The Fleece (1757) and Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden (1791).

Cuddon points out that

It has been argued that all poetry is, by implication, didactic; that it should and does instruct as well as delight. Horace's Ars Poetica, Boileau's Art Poétique, in imitation of Horace, and Pope's Essay on Criticism were intended to instruct poets in their craft.

(In Ars Poetica Horace defines the aim of poetry as to instruct and to delight: Aut prodesse volunt, aut delectare Poetae.)


  • Cuddon, J. A.: The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Third edition. Penguin 1992.
  • I'm not sure this is correct; didactic literature doesn't necessarily involve stories. They're literary works that teach specific things, like how to write a poem or how to plant your crops or how to preserve your health. So the specific type of didactic literature that involves teaching morals via stories is not addressed in this answer, I think, – verbose Jan 4 at 8:24
  • "didactic literature doesn't necessarily involve stories". That is true, but it can, can't it? Isn't the Confessio Amantis an example of that? – Tsundoku Jan 4 at 11:59
  • True ‘nuff, it sure can – verbose Jan 4 at 12:00

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