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Caruth, E. (1994). Fables as Psychoanalytic Metaphors. Ann. Psychoanal., 22:225-237.

(1994). Annual of Psychoanalysis, 22:225-237

Fables as Psychoanalytic Metaphors

Elaine Caruth

The fable has long been treated as a kind of stepchild within the broader discipline of folklore where from the beginning it was not distinguished as a separate genre. Thus Vico (1752), who was the first to propose a science of human society that included the study of folklore, believed “that the first science to be learned should be mythology or the interpretation of fable; for as we shall see all the histories of the gentiles have their beginnings in fables” (Hawkes, 1977, p. 12).

One is reminded of Freud's dictum 174 years later (1926) concerning the importance of the study of mythology in the training of young psychoanalysts. The myth and the fairy tale have consistently generated a greater interest and study than the fable. Psychoanalysts' neglect of fable as a genre with its own unique characteristics may be attributed to their interest in the myth's stronger affinity with unconscious and primary process levels of communication. There are some analytic writers, however, who have recognized the relatively idiosyncratic qualities of fables which distinguish them from other kinds of folk narratives. Bettelheim (1976), for example, described the fable as a cautionary tale that “by arousing anxiety, prevents us from acting in ways which are described as damaging to us …” (p. 38). This is in contrast to the oedipal myth, for example, which describes a situation that one can neither escape from nor avoid” (p. 38). Bettelheim (1976) also pointed out that the fable “always explicitly states a moral truth; there is no hidden meaning, nothing is left to our imagination” (pp. 42–43). Bettelheim suggested that the fable has less impact than the fairy tale, presenting only either-or choices that offer little or no potential for growth and development. Fables are brief, almost brutally realistic and to the point; their lessons are stated succinctly without room for equivocation or debate.

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