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What is a Cautionary Tale?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1004707 — On Apr 04, 2021

My advice: Don't watch the news, as it's filled with bias. News organizations are in it to make money or gain political power. Journalism is dead, and like the article states, cautionary tales can be used by people in power to get the populace to conform to terrible ideas out of fear. Instead, research topics online, look for source documents, find out what leaders actually said (not what news organizations claim someone said), and educate yourself with a rational mind, not a fearful one. Fear is the gateway to oppression and loss of freedom.

By BabaB — On Jun 20, 2011

@GreenWeaver - I agree with you. Cautionary tales, especially those that are on the news do serve a purpose. They remind us of real events that have happened. They remind us to take precautions and be aware of dangers. These would be words of advice for adults.

When dealing with teenagers, they should be aware of what can happen in the real world, so watching the news with their parents might be a good idea. Afterwards, I think it's wise to talk with them about the cautionary stories they saw.

With young children, as they grow older, I think the best way to handle news stories is to give them as much information as they want or as you think they can handle. They don't need to watch the graphic news, just tell them about some of the news items.

By live2shop — On Jun 20, 2011

Many cautionary tales in the form of fairy tales and folk tales are quite gruesome, this one is milder, but still teaches a good lesson to us all.

Most adults have heard this one. The shepherd boy brought out the village people three or four times by calling out,"wolf, wolf." All his neighbors came out to help him and the shepherd just laughed at them.

When a wolf really did come and threatened his sheep, he cried and begged the villagers to please come and help him. "The wolf is killing my sheep," he screamed. But no one showed up. The wolf ate up all the sheep. And that was that.

Important lesson: People may come and help you when you lie once, but if you tell the truth the next time, they may think it's a lie again and not come to help you -- a good lesson for the young and old.

By surfNturf — On Jun 19, 2011

@Moldova - I do think that there are very many cautionary tales in the news. I know that there is a great cautionary tale for children called, “Matilda.” It was written by Hilaire Beloc and this cautionary tale discusses the dangers of excessive lying. In the story, Matlida was a compulsive liar and one day she said that her house was on fire, but no one believed her because she had lied so many times in the past.

Well, you can just imagine what happened next. Matlida was burned to death in her home because no one believed that her home was really on fire. Although this story is a little gruesome it does underscore the importance of telling the truth because once your integrity is gone no one will believe anything that you say and in this story it caused the main character her life.

By Moldova — On Jun 19, 2011

@GreenWeaver - I agree. I cannot watch the news for more than a few minutes, but sometimes there are teaching moments in those cautionary tales. For example, there was a congressman that resigned because he lied which sends a powerful message about honesty and integrity to children.

In fact, the story has many lessons in it. You can also warn a young adult about the dangers of posting and sending inappropriate pictures of themselves because it can come back to haunt them as it did this congressman.

I definitely think that the news allows a young person the ability to understand the consequences of making poor choices.

By GreenWeaver — On Jun 19, 2011

I know cautionary tales can be scary, but they do serve a vivid purpose. They really remind you of the dangers there are in the world and reiterate how important it is to be careful. If you think about the regular newscast there are a lot of cautionary tales because you learn about real life situations that occurred and often due to reckless behavior.

For example, there was a case of a five year old that shot a sibling dead by accident. This is not only shocking and tragic, but it is also a cautionary tale about leaving a loaded gun lying around a child. These stories are so powerful because they are true that they really allow people to hopefully learn a lesson about the dangers of keeping guns lying around the home.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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