What Are Fables?

Definition and Examples

This illustration of "The Fox and the Grapes" comes from an edition of Aesop's Fables that was printed by William Caxton in the 15th century. (The Print Collector/Getty Images)

A fable is a fictional narrative meant to teach a moral lesson.

The characters in a fable are usually animals whose words and actions reflect human behavior. A form of folk literature, the fable is also one of the progymnasmata.

Some of the best-known fables are those attributed to Aesop, an enslaved man who lived in Greece in the sixth century BC. (See Examples and Observations below.) A popular modern fable is George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945).


From the Latin, "to speak"

Examples and Observations

Variations on the Fable of the Fox and the Grapes

  • "A famished fox saw some clusters of ripe black grapes hanging from a trellised vine. She resorted to all her tricks to get at them, but wearied herself in vain, for she could not reach them. At last she turned away, hiding her disappointment and saying: 'The Grapes are sour, and not ripe as I thought.'
    "MORAL: Revile not things beyond your reach."
  • "A fox, seeing some sour grapes hanging within an inch of his nose, and being unwilling to admit that there was anything he would not eat, solemnly declared that they were out of his reach."
    (Ambrose Bierce, "The Fox and the Grapes." Fantastic Fables, 1898)
  • "A thirsty fox one day, in passing through a vineyard, noticed that the grapes were hanging in clusters from vines which were trained to such a height as to be out of his reach.
    "'Ah,' said the fox, with a supercilious smile, 'I've heard of this before. In the twelfth century an ordinary fox of average culture would have wasted his energy and strength in the vain attempt to reach yonder sour grapes. Thanks to my knowledge of vine culture, however, I at once observe that the great height and extent of the vine, the drain upon the sap through the increased number of tendrils and leaves must, of necessity, impoverish the grape, and render it unworthy the consideration of an intelligent animal. Not any for me thank you.' With these words he coughed slightly, and withdrew.
    "MORAL: This fable teaches us that an intelligent discretion and some botanical knowledge are of the greatest importance in grape culture."
    (Bret Harte, "The Fox and the Grapes." The Improved Aesop for Intelligent Modern Children)
  • "'Exactly,' said one of the party they called Wiggins. 'It is the old story of the fox and the grapes. Did you ever hear, sir, the story of the fox and the grapes? The fox one day was . . .'
    "'Yes, yes,' said Murphy, who, fond of absurdity as he was, could not stand the fox and the grapes by way of something new.
    "'They're sour,' said the fox.
    "'Yes,' said Murphy, 'a capital story.'
    "'Oh, them fables is so good!' said Wiggins.
    "'All nonsense!' said the diminutive contradictor. 'Nonsense, nothing but nonsense; the ridiculous stuff of birds and beasts speaking! As if any one could believe such stuff.'
    "'I do--firmly--for one,' said Murphy."
    (Samuel Lover, Handy Andy: A Tale of Irish Life, 1907)

"The Fox and the Crow," from Aesop's Fables

  • "A crow was sitting on a branch of a tree with a piece of cheese in her beak when a Fox observed her and set his wits to work to discover some way of getting the cheese.
    "Coming and standing under the tree he looked up and said, 'What a noble bird I see above me! Her beauty is without equal, the hue of her plumage exquisite. If only her voice is as sweet as her looks are fair, she ought without doubt to be Queen of the Birds.
    "The Crow was hugely flattered by this, and just to show the Fox that she could sing she gave a loud caw. Down came the cheese and the Fox, snatching it up, said, 'You have a voice, madam, I see: what you want is wits.'

"The Bear Who Let It Alone": A Fable by James Thurber

  • "In the woods of the Far West there once lived a brown bear who could take it or let it alone. He would go into a bar where they sold mead, a fermented drink made of honey, and he would have just two drinks. Then he would put some money on the bar and say, 'See what the bears in the back room will have,' and he would go home. But finally he took to drinking by himself most of the day. He would reel home at night, kick over the umbrella stand, knock down the bridge lamps, and ram his elbows through the windows. Then he would collapse on the floor and lie there until he went to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.
    "At length the bear saw the error of his ways and began to reform. In the end he became a famous teetotaler and a persistent temperance lecturer. He would tell everybody that came to his house about the awful effects of drink, and he would boast about how strong and well he had become since he gave up touching the stuff. To demonstrate this, he would stand on his head and on his hands and he would turn cartwheels in the house, kicking over the umbrella stand, knocking down the bridge lamps, and ramming his elbows through the windows. Then he would lie down on the floor, tired by his healthful exercise, and go to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.
    "Moral: You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backward."
    (James Thurber, "The Bear Who Let It Alone." Fables for Our Time, 1940)

Addison on the Persuasive Power of Fables

  • "[A]mong all the different ways of giving counsel, I think the finest, and that which pleases the most universally, is fable, in whatsoever shape it appears. If we consider this way of instructing or giving advice, it excels all others, because it is the least shocking, and the least subject to those exceptions which I have before mentioned.
    "This will appear to us, if we reflect in the first place, that upon the reading of a fable, we are made to believe we advise ourselves. We peruse the author for the sake of the story, and consider the precepts rather as our own conclusions, than his instructions. The moral insinuates itself imperceptibly, we are taught by surprise, and become wiser and better unawares. In short, by this method a man is so far over-reached as to think he is directing himself, whilst he is following the dictates of another, and consequently is not sensible of that which is the most unpleasing circumstance in advice."
    (Joseph Addison, "On Giving Advice." The Spectator, Oct. 17, 1712)

Chesterton on Fables

  • "Fable is, generally speaking, far more accurate than fact, for fable describes a man as he was to his own age, fact describes him as he is to a handful of inconsiderable antiquarians many centuries after. . . . Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells us about one man and fable tells us about a million men."
    (Gilbert K. Chesterton, "Alfred the Great")
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Fables?" ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-fable-1690848. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, September 1). What Are Fables? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-fable-1690848 Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Fables?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-fable-1690848 (accessed June 3, 2023).