What Is a Cautionary Tale?

Stories With Consequences

Deeply engrossed in a novel
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A cautionary tale is a traditional story with a moral message warning of the consequences of certain actions, inactions, or character flaws. The narrative may be a fable, proverb, or urban legend. Sometimes the story ends with a line telling what the moral of the story is, while other times it is simply embedded in the story.

The elements of a cautionary tale are that a danger is ignored or a taboo or social convention is broken. The character in the tale who committed this breach then meets an unpleasant fate. The stories can often be scary and grisly, although in milder form the character may narrowly escape the worst consequences. They may also be referred to as instant karma stories or moral tales.

Examples of Cautionary Tales

The story of King Midas is a cautionary tale demonstrating the pitfalls of unbridled greed. He desires to have the ability to turn everything he touches into gold and his wish is granted the god Dionysus. But soon Midas discovers the consequences when his food, drink, and finally, his daughter was turned to gold with his touch. He now faced death from starvation and dehydration, as well as having turned his daughter into a golden statue. But Dionysus heard his prayer and he was able to wash in the river Pactolus to remove the blessing now turned curse.

Cautionary Urban Legends

The cautionary tale is a familiar form for many urban legends. For example, in the Hook urban legend, two teenagers are parked on a lovers' lane and about to engage in further intimacy when they hear a warning on the radio about a murderer escaped from an asylum who can be recognized by having a hook in place of his missing hand. After the girl becomes frightened and resists further advances, the boy relents and takes her home, only to find a hook attached to the door handle when they arrive. The moral of this story was a warning against parking on lovers' lane. Cautionary elements were often a part of teenage horror movies, as couples engaged in illicit sex were often the first victims of the rampaging killer.

Cautionary Viral Email and Social Media Postings

In the age of email and social media, cautionary tales quickly spread as friends urge each other to forward the message or repost to everyone in their address book, friend list, or followers. In this way, the message can become itself an element in a cautionary tale.

Example: Jane laughed at the email message about not removing a piece of paper stuck onto the rear window of her car. After holiday shopping, she got into her car at the mall and started it, but before backing out saw a flyer stuck under the rear wiper. She got out to remove it and a thief jumped into her running car and drove off taking with him her purse, cell phone, and all the Christmas gifts she just bought.