Foreshadowing

Definition of Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is a literary device that writers utilize as a means to indicate or hint to readers something that is to follow or appear later in a story. Foreshadowing, when done properly, is an excellent device in terms of creating suspense and dramatic tension for readers. It can set up emotional expectations of character behaviors and/or plot outcomes. This can heighten a reader’s enjoyment of a literary work, enhance the work’s meaning, and help the reader make connections with other literature and literary themes.

Nathaniel Hawthorne utilizes foreshadowing effectively in his short story “Young Goodman Brown.” The title character’s rendezvous with the devil is foreshadowed by many plot elements, including the example that his nighttime companion carries a crooked staff that resembles a “great black snake.” This foreshadowing indicates for the reader not only that the devil is Goodman Brown’s companion, but a sense of the impending temptation and test of faith to follow in the story. The serpent-like staff used by the devil in the story allows the reader to connect Hawthorne’s tale and themes with those of the book of Genesis and the Garden of Eden.

Common Examples of Foreshadowing

Writers and storytellers utilize recurring symbols, motifs, and other elements as foreshadowing. Readers and audiences often recognize these elements as hints of what might be to come in a story. Here are some common examples of elements used as foreshadowing:

  • Dialogue, such as “I have a bad feeling about this”
  • Symbols, such as blood, certain colors, types of birds, weapons
  • Weather motifs, such as storm clouds, wind, rain, clearing skies
  • Omens, such as prophecies or broken mirror
  • Character reactions, such as apprehension, curiosity, secrecy
  • Time and/or season, such as midnight, dawn, spring, winter
  • Settings, such as graveyard, battlefield, isolated path, river

Examples of Titles with Foreshadowing

The title of a literary work can be used to foreshadow its plot events. Here are some examples of titles that contain foreshadowing:

  • The Fall of the House of Usher
  • Murder on the Orient Express
  • Love in the Time of Cholera
  • The Story of an Hour
  • Roger Malvin’s Burial
  • The Crying of Lot 49
  • A Telephone Call
  • As I Lay Dying
  • A Romantic Weekend
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Famous Examples of Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is an effective device for nearly any type of literary work and most forms of storytelling media. This includes poetry, short fiction, drama, novels, television, and movies. Here are some famous examples of foreshadowing from these these forms of narrative:

Poetry

Short Fiction

  • Apprehension felt by the townspeople in “The Lottery”
  • Purchase of arsenic by Emily Grierson in “A Rose for Emily”

Drama

  • Romeo’s statement “My life were better ended by their hate, than death prorogued, wanting of thy love” in Romeo and Juliet
  • Hint of expectation in the title of Waiting for Godot

Novels

  • “the leaves fell early that year” (foreshadowing death) in A Farewell to Arms
  • The symbolic pain of Harry’s scar in the Harry Potter series

Television

  • House of Stark words “Winter Is Coming” in Game of Thrones
  • The appearance of Kenny’s character in South Park

Movies

  • Dorothy singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz
  • The only person who replies to the therapist is the boy who “sees” dead people in The Sixth Sense

Difference Between Foreshadowing and Flashback

Some readers may confuse foreshadowing and flashback as literary devices. Both techniques are designed to enhance the narrative of a literary work. However, foreshadowing is intended to provide readers with just a hint or sense of what is to come in a story. Flashback is intended to directly provide readers with exposition, or background information in terms of plot and/or character development.

Flashback is a literary device that interrupts a narrative plotline to present an earlier scene or episode in order to provide clarification or information for the reader. This works as a means of promoting and enhancing reader understanding of a literary work by setting forth context and exposition cues.

Foreshadowing also enhances reader understanding of a literary work. However, foreshadowing is generally more subtle than flashback and is not intended for expository or clarification purposes. Rather than interrupting the narrative, proper foreshadowing is artfully woven into the story when done properly.

Writing Foreshadowing

Overall, as a literary device, foreshadowing functions as a means of focusing a reader’s attention and/or setting up anticipation of a narrative revelation or plot twist. This is effective for readers in that foreshadowing primes their emotions and expectations for something to be revealed. This can enhance the enjoyment, meaning, and understanding of a literary work when foreshadowing is properly used.

Writers tend to utilize one of two forms of foreshadowing in their work:

  • Direct foreshadowing: This form of the literary device is used by writers who wish to directly and pointedly hint at or indicate a particular outcome for readers. At times, it benefits writers to explicitly reveal what happens in a story through direct foreshadowing. This allows reader to focus on other aspects of the narrative besides plot outcomes.
  • Indirect foreshadowing: This form of the literary device is used by writers who wish to indirectly and subtly hint at or indicate a particular outcome for readers. When it comes to indirect foreshadowing, it is often so effective that it may not be apparent to readers until after the outcome has taken place. In addition, readers may not realize the significance or meaning of indirect foreshadowing until the outcome reveals it.

Unfortunately, when foreshadowing is used poorly, inadequately, or improperly, it can leave readers feeling disappointed and/or confused. This can undermine the effectiveness of a story’s plot, character development, theme, and artistic quality. Therefore, writers must consider the use of foreshadowing carefully and artfully, so that it is not misconstrued, too overt, or too subtle to be recognized.

Examples of Foreshadowing in Literature

Foreshadowing is an effective literary device in terms of preparing readers for events to come or narrative reveals. This device is valuable, as it allows readers to make connections between themes, characters, symbols, and more–both within a literary work and between works of literature. Here are some examples of foreshadowing and how it adds to the significance of well-known literary works:

Example 1: Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck)

You seen what they done to my dog tonight?  They says he wasn’t no good to himself nor nobody else.  When they can me here I wisht somebody’d shoot me.  But they won’t do nothing like that.  I won’t have no place to go, an’ I get no more jobs.”

Steinbeck utilizes foreshadowing in Of Mice and Men in a very subtle manner. Most readers are shocked by the ending of the novel. However, Steinbeck incorporates an earlier scene in the story that mirrors and hints at the final outcome. This foreshadowing takes place when the character Candy’s dog is shot as a “mercy killing.” Like Candy himself, his dog is growing old and has outlived his usefulness in the eyes of the ranch hands. Candy confesses to George the agony of his decision to let Carlson kill his dog, the regret of not having done so himself, and his fear that he will have nobody to put him out of his own misery when the time comes. This scene foreshadows the decision George must make regarding Lennie at the end of the novel.

Example 2: Macbeth (William Shakespeare)

By the pricking of my thumb,
Something wicked this way comes.

In Shakespeare’s play, the second witch makes this pronouncement at Macbeth’s approach. Her statement indicates an intuitive sense of foreboding, symbolized by the witch’s physical sensation in her thumb. This is foreshadowing for the reader of the events to come in the story and Macbeth’s true nature as someone who is capable of betrayal and murder as a means of keeping his power as king.

Shakespeare’s use of direct foreshadowing in this scene confirms for the reader Macbeth’s guilt and corruption. Throughout the play, the witches speak “indirectly” through their prophecies and veiled predictions, all of which are subtle examples of foreshadowing that must be deciphered and interpreted by the reader. However, with this pointed and direct statement of foreshadowing, there is no doubt for Shakespeare’s audience that Macbeth deserves his outcome in the play.

Example 3: A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Flannery O’Connor)

‘[I]t would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t of reckernized me.’ Bailey turned his head sharply and said something to his mother that shocked even the children. The old lady began to cry and The Misfit reddened.

In O’Connor’s short story, the news of a recently escaped murderer called “The Misfit” is mentioned many times by several characters, before and during the family’s vacation journey. In fact, the grandmother’s character seems preoccupied by The Misfit’s story, which calls the reader’s attention to it as well. This is clever use of foreshadowing on the part of O’Connor in the sense that it appears to be almost too direct of a hint for the reader that the family will encounter this criminal.

As a result, the reader is simultaneously prepared for yet surprised by the plot reveal that the family does meet The Misfit, and that he is recognized and acknowledged by the grandmother. The resulting violence in the story, however, remains a shock despite the fact that the grandmother and her entire family, as well as O’Connor’s readers, are familiar with The Misfit’s background and his crimes. O’Connor’s foreshadowing of The Misfit as a murderer has an almost opposite effect on the reader’s expectations for the outcome of the story.