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A cautionary tale is a story which is contains a warning. Such tales are part of many societies, and they are often told to children, establishing taboos which are designed to keep them safe from dangerous activities. You may also hear people talk about a failure of a company or scheme as a “cautionary tale,” meaning that people should take note of the series of events which led to the failure so that they can avoid making the same mistake.
The concept of the cautionary tale is probably quite ancient. Many very old cautionary tales have been passed down in the folklore of various regions, and people continue to invent new cautionary tales for children to adapt to their changing societies. As a general rule, cautionary tales are embedded in folklore; short stories, poems, and myths which are collectively passed down through a society.
Most cautionary tales come in three sections. In the first part, a boundary or taboo is established, often in the form of advice from an older person to a younger person. In the second section, the taboo is violated, and in the third, the repercussions arrive. For example, in a cautionary tale about running with scissors, someone would be told not to run with scissors and then willfully disobey the order, only to trip and be stabbed by the scissors.
In many instances, a cautionary tale is quite gruesome and these stories sometimes border on the ghoulish. In the Victorian era, for example, children's storybooks had stories about being burnt up by matches, run over by street cars, and killed by falling ladders, often with gory illustrations to supplement the already macabre stories. The excuse that the explicit content carries an important lesson is often used to justify it, with storytellers arguing that the gruesomeness of the consequences encourages people not to violate the stated taboo or rule.
One can view cautionary tales in a number of ways. In the first sense, they can serve as a valuable warnings to very young children to avoid things like getting into cars with strangers or playing with knives. They can also, however, be used to enforce conformity; depending on the type of cautionary tale, impressionable listeners or readers might learn to never question authority. There are also other dangers to the prevalence of such stories; in societies like Nazi Germany, for example, cautionary tales were also used to enforce racial and ethnic stereotypes to young children.