What is an example of foreshadowing in Our Town by Thornton Wilder?

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Foreshadowing is a literary device used to hint at something that will happen later in the work. An author can use a variety of tools—including setting, dialogue, and narration—to foreshadow a coming event. In Our Town, Thornton Wilder prepares the reader (or audience member) for the events in act 3 from very early in the play.

Act 3 takes place in the town cemetery, where the recently deceased Emily is attempting to come to terms with leaving the world of the living. Wilder subtly points to this in act 1 when the stage manager describes the setting of Grover's Corners and includes a description of the cemetery:

The earliest tombstones in the cemetery up there on the mountain say 1670–1680—they’re Grovers and Cartwrights and Gibbses and Herseys—same names as are around here now.

At the time of her death, Emily Webb was Emily Gibbs. She is in one of graves the stage manager is referencing.

A few pages later, Emily and her mother have a conversation that again hints at her death:

Mrs. Webb: As for me, I’d rather have my children healthy than bright.

Emily: I’m both Mama: you know I am. I’m the brightest girl in school for my age.

By act 2, we see that Emily did not remain healthy: she dies in childbirth.

Finally, at the beginning of act 2, the stage manager delivers a line that once again foreshadows the events of the final act:

Most everybody in the world climbs into their graves married.

Although his point is that most people marry, pairing that idea with the image of a grave delivers a feeling of foreboding. Wilder skillfully employs the device of foreshadowing to create suspense in Our Town.

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Foreshadowing is a hint or intimation of a coming event. Foreshadowing is implicit, not explicit. Information that the playwright provides in a play about a character's future or about a future event isn't foreshadowing—it's simply exposition or plot development.

Our Town, the classic American play by Thornton Wilder, is full of information, much of it provided by the Stage Manager continually through the play.

The Stage Manager is the third-person, objective, omniscient narrator who knows everything about the play and everyone in it and conveys this information to the audience factually, reliably, and as objectively as possible.

The Stage Manager doesn't manipulate the information, but simply presents it. There aren't any secrets that the Stage Manager, or the playwright, keeps from the audience.

There's little need for foreshadowing in Our Town, because the importance of the action of the play isn't in what happened but in how it happened. The playwright wants the audience to know what's going to happen so they can watch it happen.

The closest thing to foreshadowing in Our Town is the inner dialogue of the characters. This isn't meant to be information, necessarily, or foreshadowing, but it is insight.

In act 2, Emily is standing in the church on her wedding day. She's frightened when she looks out over the congregation.

EMILY. I never felt so alone in my whole life. And George over there, looking so...! I hate him. I wish I were dead.

Mr. Webb goes to her.

EMILY Why can't I stay for a while just as I am?

Mr. Web leads Emily to George, who tries to reassure her.

EMILY. All I want is someone to love me.

GEORGE. I will, Emily. Emily, I'll try.

EMILY. And I mean for ever. Do you hear? For ever and ever.

Emily expresses many of these same sentiments when she's just died and is sitting in her grave, wanting to go back to her life for just one day.

She does go back for a day—her twelfth birthday—and learns that nothing lasts forever, not even love. It's one of the things that the living think is important and think that they need, but it doesn't withstand the test of time.

EMILY. They don't understand, do they?

MRS. GIBBS. No, dear. They don't understand.

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Our Town is full of foreshadowing, perhaps more so than in almost any other play. Much of this foreshadowing is provided by the narrator, who is called the Stage Manager. He seems to know everything about everybody. He knows about everyone's past, present and future.

For example, the Stage Manager tells the audience: 

The First Act shows a day in our town. The day is May 7, 1901.

The Stage Manager mentions a great number of the town's citizens, including Doc  Gibbs and Mrs. Gibbs who are alive and active as of that date, and also a newspaper delivery boy named Joe Crowell, Jr. Yet, still early in the First Act in 1901, he tells the audience:

Doc Gibbs died in 1930. The new hospital's named after him.

Mrs. Gibbs died first--long time ago, in fact.

Goin' to be a great engineer, Joe was. But the war broke out and he died in France.

The war would have been World War I, which America did not enter until 1917.

Act Three of this three-act play takes place mainly in the town cemetery, where the audience meets the spirits of many of the town folk who were alive in 1901 in Act One. The Stage Manager informs the audience that the time is now summer, 1913. Mrs. Gibbs is there now, as foreshadowed in Act One. Her husband Doc Gibbs would still be alive, of course. Even the more distant future is foreshadowed beyond 1913 because Doc Gibbs' death will not occur during the time covered in the play. In this very moving cemetery scene the dead comment on the follies of the living, and Mrs. Gibbs greets her own daughter Emily Webb who was getting married nine years earlier in Act Two and has died recently in childbirth. Emily tells her mother:

Oh, Mother Gibbs, I never realized before how troubled and how . . . how in the dark live persons are.

When the play ends, the characters are still back in 1913, but the audience is watching in the present and has a foreboding of the deaths of all the characters who are still alive and will be coming to join the dead in the town cemetery. Since the Stage Manager knows what is going to happen in the distant future, there is a feeling that all the characters are still alive and already dead. The viewer is likely to have a foreboding about his or her own death. But the foreboding evokes compassion and understanding rather than fear. 


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