‘Light At The End of The Tunnel’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on July 14, 2023

Did someone use the phrase 'light at the end of the tunnel', and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

'Light at the end of the tunnel' is an idiom that refers to the signs of a circumstance improving after a period of difficulty. The same phrase can also be used to describe the experiences reported to be shared by some people as they are near death. In these reports, people will sometimes describe a tunnel with a bright light shining through.

What Does 'Light at the End of the Tunnel' Mean?

Light at the end of the tunnel’ is used idiomatically to refer to a situation getting better after a long struggle or hardship. Essentially, it means that an extended period of adversity is finally coming to an end.

If you've ever traveled through a tunnel before, either by car, train or on foot, you can see how this phrase is illustrative of the concept.

  • Things are so dark in a tunnel that it's hard to see. However, the brightness of daylight grows larger as you near the exit, helping to guide the way and indicate that you'll be leaving the tunnel soon enough.

This same phrase can refer to the vision of a bright light surrounded by darkness, reportedly seen by some people as they die.

  • If you've ever spent time exploring "near-death experience" reports, one of the patterns of experience that pops up is a tunnel with a bright light that the person on the brink of death heads towards.

Where Does 'Light at the End of the Tunnel' Come From?

According to Dictionary.com, this idiom has been in use since the 1800s. However, it didn't become popular until the mid-20th century. The Online Etymology Dictionary states that 'light at the end of the tunnel' was used figuratively starting around 1882.

We find a slight variation in the phrase dating back before the Online Etymology Dictionary's stated date. It shows up in an 1879 letter written by George Eliot about a recent illness:

"On Saturday I had a rather severe relapse and though I am getting out of the tunnel into daylight, this renewal of weakness taken with the dreary prospects of the weather under which nothing ripens and fruits hardly escape rotting, makes it seem as if we should be wiser to defer the visit till the 19th when the promised Rubicon of the 16th will have been passed."

Another similar phrasing shows up in an 1891 book review in the Saturday Review. This review criticizes a particular piece of nature writing for being longwinded, which explains the number of words in parenthesis:

"You sentimentalize about autumn in the abstract (200 words), about autumn in Somersetshire (150 words), and about the “orchard-lawns” of Avilion (50 words). This is rather below the mark, so you hurry on to the apple-crop (100 words) and “the story of an apple-orchard” (500 words), throwing in the cricket—that “musician of the autumn”—wasps, and the “unnumbered hosts of other insects” (400 words). You now see light at the end of the tunnel, and a vigorous attack on the hibernation of these insects (250 words) prepares for a final burst on winters of unusual severity (150 words), and the thing is done before you know where you are."

Modern Usage of the Idiom

Since around the mid-20th century, this idiom has been used specifically to express optimism. One example shows up in a 1965 piece by the journalist Joseph Alsop in regard to the Vietnam War:

"The importance of this change that is now going on can hardly be exaggerated. It does not mean, alas, that the war is being won now, or will be won later without great effort and sacrifice. But it does mean that at last there is light at the end of the tunnel."

The phrase has been used to title many creative works as well. This includes a 1987 album by The Damned, a song by B. B. Watson, and a song by Richard Hawley.

'Light at the End of the Tunnel' and NDEs

In recent years, more and more light has been shone upon the phenomenon of near-death experiences. These are, essentially, profound experiences that people have when they are close to death.

In studying these experiences, a number of patterns have emerged. One of the most frequent of these is the idea that a person "sees the light" at the end of the tunnel that they are either thrust down or can choose to move through.

One image that people in this field sometimes point to is Ascent of the Blessed by Hieronymus Bosch. In the image, a tunnel with a bright, white light at the end appears as people float up toward it. Some are clearly seen moving down the tunnel. The idea is that the phenomenon of seeing a light at the end of a tunnel may stretch far back through history.

Examples of 'Light at the End of the Tunnel' In Sentences

How could you use this idiom in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • "Let's keep forging forward-- I know it's not easy. You have to trust me that there's a light at the end of the tunnel."
  • "It's good to hear that John is feeling better. I was sick myself for a while. I know it can be hard to believe there's a light at the end of the tunnel."
  • "We need to stop wasting time. Just because we see the light at the end of the tunnel doesn't mean we'll actually get there. We have to work hard and keep moving."
  • "I've been having a much better time at the office recently. Now that I know I'm going to be leaving at the end of the year, it's like I can see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Other Ways to Say 'Light at the End of the Tunnel'

What are some expressions and phrases that have a similar meaning as this idiom?

Here are some options:

  • Silver lining: Refers to being able to find something beneficial or positive about a situation that appears negative
  • Break in the clouds: Illustrates times getting easier after a period of difficulty
  • A glimmer of hope: A phrase that means that there's a small yet meaningful sign that provides some reason for optimism during hard times

Quotes Using the Idiom

A number of famous creatives, public figures, sports stars, and others have used the phrase 'light at the end of the tunnel' in memorable and impactful quotes.

Here are some examples:

"If you do not have an absolutely clear vision of something, where you can follow the light to the end of the tunnel, then it doesn't matter whether you're bold or cowardly, or whether you're stupid or intelligent. Doesn't get you anywhere."

- Werner Herzog

"Sometimes that light at the end of the tunnel is a train."

- Charles Barkley

"When people say, 'You have Alzheimer's,' you have no idea what Alzheimer's is. You know it's not good. You know there's no light at the end of the tunnel. That's the only way you can go. But you really don't know anything about it. And you don't know what to expect."

- Nancy Reagan

"Also the wonderful thing about film, you can see light at the end of the tunnel. You did realise that it is going to come to an end at some stage."

- John Hurt

"Some actors couldn't figure out how to withstand the constant rejection. They couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel."

- Harrison Ford

Final Thoughts About 'Light at the End of the Tunnel'

'Light at the end of the tunnel' is a phrase you can use to refer to seeing indications that a bad situation is going to end. It means that, though hardship is currently being experienced, there are better times ahead.

This is also the phrase commonly used to describe the bright light some individuals have reported seeing when near death. It is often explained as a light that seems to appear on the other side of a dark tunnel.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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