You see a black cat on your way to take an exam. Surely, its an omen! If literature is anything to go by, this certainly means bad luck, and you will fail the exam. Thankfully, real life isnt structured by a literary mastermind that carefully drops hints of our fates. And what a clichéd example of foreshadowing that would be, too. We like to create stories out of our lives, but a black cat is just a black cat if you pass your exam.

Foreshadowing Foreshadowing

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    In literature, however, youd be right to think that a black cat is bad news. Foreshadowing is a popular literary device used to give an advance hint of what will happen in a story. Well-performed foreshadowing has the power to delight us when the full mystery is uncovered, or it can make a characters fate all the more tragic.

    The meaning of foreshadowing

    Foreshadowing is a fictional device, and it is presented either directly or indirectly.

    Definition of foreshadowing

    Foreshadowing is a narrative technique that hints at a plot outcome.

    The literary critic Gary Saul Morsons explanation helps us visualise foreshadowing:

    An object in our path may cast a shadow backward, so that we reach the shadow before reaching the object casting it (Gary Saul Morson, Sideshadowing and Tempics’, 1998).1

    Simply put, foreshadowing functions exactly like a shadow: we catch a glimpse of what is to come but not the full picture.

    Foreshadowing, People casting long shadows on the pavement, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Foreshadowing works like a shadow of the future that can be seen in an earlier part of a text.

    Types and examples of foreshadowing

    There are two main types of foreshadowing, which differ in how subtle the hint is.

    Direct (explicit) foreshadowing

    In direct foreshadowing, a writer explicitly draws our attention to the foreshadowing. This type can have the effect of directing the readers attention away from what will happen to how and why it happens.

    The techniques of direct foreshadowing include:

    • A revelatory statement: a novel may open with the narrator saying that by the end of the story, a character will die without revealing who, why, or how. A revelatory statement can come from the narrator, for example, in a prologue, or from the dialogue between characters in the story.
    • Prophecy: this predicts the future, but the reader has to keep reading to find out if and how the prophecy will come true.

    In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) by J. K. Rowling, Professor Trelawney makes the following prophecy:

    The Dark Lord will rise again with his servant’s aid, greater and more terrible than ever before. Tonight before midnight the servant will set out to rejoin his master

    (Chapter 16).

    At this point in the story, we dont know that Rons pet rat, Scabbers, is actually the servant of whom Trelawney Peter Pettigrew in animal form. The prophecy directly foreshadows what will happen, but we keep reading, excited to find out who the servant is and how he will help Voldemort rise again.

    Indirect (implicit) foreshadowing

    In indirect foreshadowing, the writer subtly hints at future events without drawing attention to the fact that those hints are intended as foreshadowing.

    This often means that the reader is unlikely to pick up on the hints until the foreshadowed event takes place, or maybe the hints are so subtle that readers would have to re-read the story to be able to piece everything together.

    The techniques of indirect foreshadowing include:

    • Pathetic fallacy: in this, the weather and the natural world foreshadow plot outcomes. For example, a thunderstorm may foreshadow an unpleasant event.
    • Symbols and metaphors: these work well as indirect foreshadowing techniques because they are, by their very nature, subtle. Symbols and metaphors are abstract forms of indirect foreshadowing.
    • Innocuous details and statements: a reader is likely to disregard these in a story that seems to have no hidden meaning on a first reading.

    In The Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding, the line After all, were not savages subtly and ironically foreshadows that the boys will act more and more violent, like savages’, as the novel progresses.

    The purpose of foreshadowing

    The main purpose of foreshadowing is to engage the reader in a story. Foreshadowing makes a story more well-rounded, creating thematic unity.

    Another important purpose of foreshadowing is to add to the mood and meaning of a story.

    The functions and effects of foreshadowing

    Foreshadowing affects a story’s mood and pathos:

    • Mood: foreshadowing can create suspense and a sense of foreboding.
    • Pathos: foreshadowing can have a strong emotional effect on readers. The poignancy of the foreshadowed event is heightened by the foreshadowing.

    In The Kite Runner (2003) by Khaled Hosseini, the tragic fate of Hassan is made all the more poignant to the reader with the foreshadowing story of Rostam and Sohrab. As kids, this is Amir and Hassans favourite story. Its about a warrior who kills his enemy in battle, not knowing that he is his brother. Amir lets Hassan be abused by bullies and distances himself from Hassan out of guilt. Amir only learns that Hassan was his half-brother after he has been killed by the Taliban many years later. The story foreshadows Hassans fate and makes it all the more poignant and tragic, creating a heightened feeling of injustice.

    Irony: foreshadowing can have an ironic effect if characters foreshadow an event by saying with conviction that such an event is unlikely to happen. This creates an ironic, mocking effect.

    As we saw earlier, in The Lord of the Flies, the boys arrogance about their civilised English identity is mocked through the irony of the foreshadowing statement, After all, were not savages.

    Determinism: some uses of foreshadowing implies the inevitability of fate. This makes it somewhat of a fatalistic device. When something is fatalistic, it carries with it the assumption that the future is already decided and that we cant escape our fates.

    The fates of the two lovers in Romeo and Juliet (1597) by William Shakespeare are heavily foreshadowed throughout:

    Methinks I see thee now, thou art so low,

    As one dead in the bottom of a tomb.

    (Act 3, Scene 5).

    The differences between foreshadowing and related techniques

    Foreshadowing is different from the literary techniques of flashbacks, flashforwards, and red herrings:

    A flashforward shows the future, whereas foreshadowing only hints at it.

    Famously, in A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come visits Scrooge and shows him what his future will actually be like if he doesnt stop being such a scrooge.

    A flashback shows the past.

    In Margaret Atwoods dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985), Offreds narrative often flashes back to her life in the US in the 1980s before it became the Republic of Gilead.

    Foreshadowing and red herrings are also two different things. A red herring is when an author misguides his reader with a false hint. A red herring misdirects the reader into thinking something will happen rather than hinting at something that does happen.

    However, we may not know whether something is a red herring or foreshadowing until the full plot has been revealed to us.

    In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) by J. K. Rowling, the reader is led to believe that Sirius Black is a deranged villain whos out to get Harry, only to find out he had been framed and that the real villain was a wizard-turned-pet-rat.

    Foreshadowing - Key takeaways

    • Foreshadowing is a popular literary device used to give an advance hint of what will happen in a story.
    • There are two types of foreshadowing: direct and indirect foreshadowing.
    • The main overarching purpose of foreshadowing is to engage the reader in the story. Foreshadowing makes a story more well-rounded, creating thematic unity.
    • Foreshadowing is mainly used to create suspense, pathos, and irony. The technique also has a fatalistic quality, as it can sometimes imply that we cant escape our fates.
    • Examples of foreshadowing can be found across different literary genres, from Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet (1597) and The Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding to J. K. Rowlings Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) and Khaled Hosseinis The Kite Runner (2003).


    1 Gary Saul Morson, Sideshadowing and Tempics, New Literary History (Autumn 1998).

    Frequently Asked Questions about Foreshadowing

    How do you identify foreshadowing in literature?

    You can identify foreshadowing in literature by paying attention to how the author creates mood and atmosphere, whether characters seem overly confident about the future and any unusual symbols and imagery used.

    What is foreshadowing?

    Foreshadowing is a hint at a plot outcome in literature, film, television, etc.

    What does foreshadowing mean in literary terms?

    Foreshadowing is a narrative technique that hints at a plot outcome.

    What is an example of a foreshadowing in literature?

    A famous example is the foreshadowing of Romeo and Juliet’s tragic fate in Romeo and Juliet (1597) by William Shakespeare: ‘Methinks I see thee now, thou art so low, / As one dead in the bottom of a tomb’.

    What is the purpose of foreshadowing?

    The main purpose of foreshadowing is to engage the reader in a story. Foreshadowing makes a story more well-rounded and creates thematic unity.

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