Definition of Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is a literary device in which the author gives clues about events that will happen later in the story. Often these clues are fairly subtle so that they can only be noticed or fully understood upon a second reading. Foreshadowing can come in the form of descriptive detail, such as storm clouds on the horizon, bits of dialogue, and even in the names an author gives characters. For example, John Steinbeck based his novel East of Eden on the story of Cain and Abel, and named his characters Caleb and Aron to foreshadow their respective fates.

Common Examples of Foreshadowing

We use foreshadowing when we tell stories to friends all the time. For example, when trying to top another person’s story, have you ever used the phrase, “Well, if you thought was bad, wait until you hear this!” Or, if the story is a happier one, you might say, “Don’t worry, this gets better,” to signal to the listener that the outcome will be positive. Parents sometimes tell their children, “You’ll thank me for this later,” in the hopes of foreshadowing gratitude down the line.

Though the definition of foreshadowing as a literary device refers only to literature, in real life humans love to predict the future. There are many different ways that humans try to guess what’s in store. Some people like to look at astrological charts and Tarot cards, while others study weather models and try to play the stock market. As the future is unknowable, none of these methods is infallible (though everyone has their own biases about which of these is most trustworthy). Foreshadowing relates to our desire to know something about what the future holds.

Significance of Foreshadowing in Literature

Foreshadowing has been used as a literary device for many centuries, and can be found everywhere from ancient Greek tragedies and old English epics to contemporary novels and plays. Authors might use foreshadowing so as to prepare the reader for some sort of shock or twist in the story. Foreshadowing can also subtly shift the mood of a piece of literature by introducing either some optimism in a dark piece or hinting at a tragic outcome in what otherwise seems to be a happy story. This usage of foreshadowing adds tension and leads to certain expectations on the part of the reader that the author can either satisfy or thwart.

Sometimes mystery writers like to use foreshadowing to give hints about what the answer to the mystery will be. On the other hand, mystery writers also know the reader will be looking for clues and will thus give a red herring instead to throw the reader off the chase.

Examples of Foreshadowing in Literature

Example #1

BENVOLIO: Tut man, one fire burns out another’s burning.
One pain is lessened by another’s anguish.
Turn giddy, and be helped by backward turning.
One desperate grief cures with another’s languish.
Take thou some new infection to thy eye,
And the rank poison of the old will die.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

At this point in the play, Romeo is still completely in love with a character named Rosaline. His friend Benvolio advises him to fall in love with someone else—only then will Romeo be able to get over this all-consuming love. The last two lines foreshadow Romeo’s upcoming infatuation with Juliet and also his death. Though Benvolio uses the term “rank poison” to refer to Romeo’s love for Rosaline, drinking poison is also the manner in which Romeo will die at the end of the play, making this a very notable foreshadowing example.

Example #2

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.

(East of Eden by John Steinbeck)

This excerpt from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden foreshadows the importance of free will that will be an important theme throughout the novel. The narrator is an important voice in the novel, representing a moral compass that observes the story from the outside. Here the narrator sets up the idea that humans can choose between good and evil; the narrator’s faith in free will gives the reader some optimism that ultimately things will turn out well.

Example #3

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.

(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

This excerpt from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the famous quotes from lawyer Atticus Finch. Atticus tells his children that courage does not come from bearing arms, but instead trying to do something noble even when the odds are against you. This quote foreshadows the main struggle of the novel as Atticus tries to defend Tom Robinson in the courtroom while knowing all along that his case has almost no hope. Atticus takes on Robinson’s case not because he thinks he will win, but because he thinks it’s the right thing to do.

Example #4

FRODO: It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill [Gollum] when he had the chance.
GANDALF: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that die deserve life, and some that live deserve death. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play, for good or ill, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.

(The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Gandalf is a wise figure in the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, and has some prophetic powers. Frodo laments that the monstrous creature of Gollum is still alive to torment and obstruct him. However, Gandalf foreshadows an important role that Gollum will play. When Frodo finally brings the One Ring to Mount Doom, but finds himself unable to destroy it, as it has gained power over him. Only the struggle with Gollum leads to the destruction of the ring, an event that Frodo cannot foresee.

Example #5

That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.

(The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini)

This example of foreshadowing comes from the beginning of Khaled Hosseini’s popular contemporary novel The Kite Runner. In this excerpt, the main character looks back to what happened many decades ago. Though the reader doesn’t yet know what happened in “that deserted alley,” Hosseini foreshadows that the event will stay with the protagonist and the consequences will haunt him.

Test Your Knowledge of Foreshadowing

1. Which of the following statements is the best foreshadowing definition?
A. A clue that the author gives as to what is to come.
B. A hint that leads the reader to make false assumptions.
C. A flashback that illuminates the current events.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: A is correct.[/spoiler]

2. Consider the following quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in which Juliet wants to find out more about Romeo:

JULIET: Go ask his name.—If he be married.
My grave is like to be my wedding bed.

Why is this an example of foreshadowing?
A. Romeo is actually already married, and Juliet will be broken-hearted because of that.
B. Romeo and Juliet will fall in love, but they will both die in the end so in a sense Juliet’s grave really will be her wedding bed.
C. Juliet will never find out Romeo’s name, and only wonder who he really is.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is correct.[/spoiler]

3. In Sophocles’s play Oedipus Rex there are many examples of foreshadowing. At one point in the play, Oedipus says to the blind Tiresius, “You’ve lost your power, stone-blind, stone-deaf – senses, eyes blind as stone!” Even if you don’t know the ending of the play, what would you guess the reason is that this is foreshadowing?
A. At the end of the play, Oedipus is also blind and deaf, and has lost all his earlier power.
B. Oedipus continues to get more and more powerful, while Tiresius remains blind and deaf.
C. After this part of the play Oedipus realizes he’s been cruel, and he and Tiresius become good friends.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is correct.[/spoiler]