Groundhogs and Shadows

by Alessandro M. via Flickr
by Alessandro M. via Flickr

It’s Groundhog Day! Today, we find out whether we have six more weeks of winter ahead of us (though we have a high of 60 today in Bloomington, so I’m not sure where winter is). Somewhere along the way, we came to believe that mild weather in midwinter (which we are most definitely experiencing here) meant a stormy, cold end to winter, as we see with this Old English saying:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

Only time will tell whether Punxsutawney Phil predicts correctly, but shadows are an ominous way of telling the future, right?

The archetype of the shadow is strong throughout literature, often as a symbol of death (even biblically: “the valley of the shadow of death”). In this way, death is shown as an unknown that we can vaguely define. William Sharpe says it well when noting that “in its simplest terms, the . . . insubstantial shadow is an idea or image of a thing, and not the thing itself.”

Then there’s the term foreshadowing, which means “to give a suggestion of (something that has not yet happened).” This technique is used often in literature to engage the reader. It adds the necessary tension to give the reader just enough information to remain curious. As Sharpe writes,

The shadow-substance tension that underlies so much writing about human perception forms an integral part of this process, guiding readers toward a substantial “something”—an object, an event, a revelation—elsewhere in space or time that will fulfill the expectations raised by the chimeras of the present moment.

We also find more playful instances of shadows in literature. The best example, of course, is Peter Pan. In this case, the shadow helps separate the fact of the real world with the fantasy of Peter’s world. Peter losing his shadow divorces him from the reality of Wendy’s world. To Peter, shadows can wander off and thimbles are kisses. That a shadow—often meant to be dark and foreboding—can be reworked into something so light, while also showing the dichotomy of Peter and Wendy’s experiences, is, quite frankly, genius.

So, Punxsutawney Phil, what happens if your shadow appears, tips its hat, and runs off?

Sources: USA Today, Merriam-Webster, Miranda

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