What Begins, What Ends: a discussion of foreshadowing in the novel



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What Begins, What Ends:

A Discussion of foreshadowing in the novel S. by Doug Dorst, J.J. Abrams

and the Chinese classical novel Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin

Erich Wu


In the novel S., the author uses frequent foreshadowing. In the first chapter, “What Begins, What Ends”, hints at events that occur further on in the book. In one scene boys hide in the shadow as S. passes by foreshadowing the relationship between S. and the agents. The marginalia between Jen and Eric in Ship of Theseus provide hints to relationships between S. and Sola.

Xueqin Cao also uses foreshadowing in the Chinese classical novel, Dream of the Red Chamber. Cao frames the tale with a mystical story about a sentient Stone begging a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest to bring it to see the world. Several events in the novel correspond to the details and text in that frame story. The main character, Baoyu Jia, is led by the Goddess of Disenchantment and wanders through the Illusory Land of Great Void. While he ventures, he is shown a record and destiny of the twelve foremost beauties in Baoyu’s province. The record and destiny that are interpreted through twelve Chinese poems actually hint at the fate of various female characters in the novel. Comparing the two books, Dorst and Abrams use scenes and the marginalia while Cao uses scenes, poetry, and multi-meaning phrases or terms to foreshadow. Both have atypical story formats. They are written as though there isn’t just a singular story, but more like stories surrounding stories: a story within a story. This paper will examine what foreshadowing is and why and how it is use by comparing how the two books apply foreshadowing. How does story format support foreshadowing and what it helps achieve.

Foreshadowing is a technique by which the author uses certain devices such as using scenes and objects to preview what is to come in the book. The use of foreshadow usually appears early on in the books. The author may directly or indirectly hint what is to come. Sometimes, the foreshadowing provides misleading information. This is called red herring.

S. starts off with the “Translator’s Note and Foreword of Ship of Theseus”. The author inserts multiple references that will be constantly discussed throughout the book. For example, the translator of Ship of Theseus, F. X. Caldeira, writes about the potential candidates of the author of Ship of Theseus, V. M. Straka. Eric and Jen, curious about who Straka was, organized a list of the candidates and possible crimes that Straka has committed. Throughout the book, when Eric and Jen exchange ideas about Straka and his identity, these candidates reappear. Caldeira is writing that hints at the possibly close relationship between her and Straka.

Chapter One starts out as S. appears in a city unknown to him and wanders around. The whole first chapter can be considered foreshadowing, pointing out many scenes and themes that appear in the book. The thematic similarity of S. wandering around, then at the tavern, and the entire Ship of Theseus story seems to function like a musical fugue, in which an introductory theme is played in a single voice and this theme is repeated by various other voices throughout.

S. wanders in “a city of ancient and flawed geometry.” (P.4) This correlates to the ambiguity of S.’s identity and his entire journey. The ship that S. sails on, the floating stars above, and the waterspout storm in Chapter Two, all revert to the description of the city S. started in.

The ambiguity of S.’s identity was one of the constant topics in the first chapter. “He does not know whether his is such a person, though. He does not know whether he has ever been here before. He does not know why he is here.” (P.4) S. questions his identity throughout the book, as Jen and Eric ponder on V.M. Straka’s identity starting from the Translator’s Note. S. points out three possible connections to his early life: an ink-stained paper with an ornate S-shaped symbol in his coat pocket, a tiny black orb in his trouser pocket, a vague but terrifying sense-memory of falling from a great height. (P.6) The S. symbol not only is revealed to be his name, but also is marked on places that he visited throughout his journey. The tiny black orb, which S. describes might be a pebble or piece of ancient and petrified fruit, might have been a piece of obsidian from the Obsidian Island, or a grape from Vévoda’s Château vineyard. The orb prefigures S.’s trip to Obsidian Island and Vévoda’s Château. The sense of falling foretells the drop S. made with Corbeau while escaping the Detectives in the painting cave. All are objects or events that occur in the future. Why does S. have them in Chapter One? They not only point to the future, but also make readers skeptical of S.’s past. The title of this chapter “What Begins, What Ends” and this quote that is emerging through the city, “What begins at the water shall end there, and what ends there shall once more begin” (P.12), both provide the possibility of S. somehow reliving what has already happened.

Another scene from the first chapter that uses foreshadowing is the distrustful exchange between the barrel organ owner and the immigrant grinder. (P.7~9) This exchange mirrors the relationship between Vévoda and the factory workers in the city of B---. The organ owner’s sons’ pursuit of the monkey is like Vévoda’s Detectives trying to capture and kill S., even though both attempts prove futile.

In another scene, three boys throw bricks and rocks at the streetlights hinting at the relationship between S. and Vevoda that is elaborated further in Ship of Theseus. (P.11~12) The boys hid when S. caught up to them and once S. left, they reemerged. The boys can be seen as Agents of Vevoda and they hide from S. because he spoils their plans. It foreshadows the Interlude chapter, where S. is an assassin hunting down Agents of Vevoda.

Following that scene, a harbormaster encounters S. and tries greeting him. S. ignores the harbormaster and continues walking. (P.13~14) This cold and indifferent encounter is a preview to Winter City, where nobody interacts with each other and each minds one’s own business. The people in Winter City are able to see each other and live in the same environment, but they live as if they are in isolation. The harbormaster’s rant, “What ever happened to comradeship and civility, the friendly hello, the small talk of a shared city”, also corresponds to S.’s thoughts of interacting with others while he was in Winter City.


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