Definition of Allusion
An allusion is a reference, typically brief, to a person, place, thing, event, or other literary work with which the reader is presumably familiar. As a literary device, allusion allows a writer to compress a great deal of meaning and significance into a word or phrase. However, allusions are only effective to the extent that they are recognized and understood by the reader, and that they are properly inferred and interpreted by the reader. If an allusion is obscure or misunderstood, it can lose effectiveness by confusing the reader.
For example, in his novel Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow’s character “Little Boy” tells another character who is going to Europe to “warn the Duke.” This is an allusion to Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria whose assassination initiated the chain of events leading to World War I. Doctorow’s allusion is effective for readers that recognize and understand the reference, and it underscores the significance for readers of how one action in history can lead to long-term global consequences.
Common Examples of Allusion in Everyday Speech
People often make allusions in everyday conversation, sometimes without the realization that they are doing so and sometimes without knowing the material to which they are alluding. Typically, these allusions are in reference to popular culture, including movies, books, music, public figures, and so on.
Here are some common examples of allusion in everyday speech, along with the source material to which they reference:
- His smile is like kryptonite to me. (Superman’s weakness)
- She felt like she had a golden ticket. (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)
- That guy is young, scrappy, and hungry. (Hamilton)
- I wish I could just click my heels. (The Wizard of Oz)
- If I’m not home by midnight, my car might turn into a pumpkin. (Cinderella)
- She smiles like a Cheshire cat. (Alice in Wonderland)
- His job is like pulling a sword out of a stone. (King Arthur Legend)
- Is there an Einstein in your physics class? (Albert Einstein)
- My math teacher is he who must not be named. (Voldemort from the Harry Potter series)
- I want to sound like Queen B. (Beyoncé)
- Today might be the Ides of March. (Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar)
- Now might be a good time to sit in my thinking chair. (Blue’s Clues)
- I have a caped crusader costume. (Batman)
- Does it count if we were on a break? (Friends)
- I’m listening to the king. (Elvis Presley)
Examples of Allusion to Classical Mythology
Writers often utilize allusion as a literary device for an incidental mention of something or a passing reference to create context. Greek and/or Roman mythology are commonly used as sources for allusions in literature, directly or by implication, due to the familiarity most readers have with classical myths, their stories, and characters.
Here are some examples of allusion to classical mythology:
- Achilles’ heel (alluding to the one weakness of Achilles)
- arrow of love (allusion to Cupid)
- carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders (allusion to Atlas)
- pushing a boulder uphill every day (allusion to Sisyphus)
- hot as Hades (alluding to the god of death / king of the underworld)
- looking like Venus (alluding to the goddess of beauty)
- Herculean effort (alluding to the strength of Hercules)
- opening Pandora’s box (alluding to Pandora’s myth of letting trouble into the world)
- protean form of management (alluding to Proteus who could change his shape)
- can’t stop staring at himself (allusion to Narcissus)
Famous Examples of Biblical Allusion
- garden (Eden, creation)
- Snake (serpent, Satan)
- flood (Noah’s Ark)
- apple/fruit (tree of knowledge, temptation)
- cross (Christ, crucifixion)
- great patience (Job)
- fraternal competition (Cain and Abel)
- betrayal (Judas)
- generosity/philanthropy (Good Samaritan)
- slingshot/stone (David and Goliath)
Allusion is a very effective literary device in all forms of literature. Writers can use allusions for character development by associating them with other well-known and familiar characters or archetypes. Literary allusions can also provide context for the reader through comparison or contrast to another literary work. In addition, allusion can provide exposition for a story by referring to the plot and/or character of another work that helps the reader understand more about the story’s events or character motivations.
When creating allusions in a literary work, writers must balance what they choose to reference and how to incorporate it into their work so it is understandable and meaningful for the reader. Here are some common types of allusion for a writer to consider when using this literary device:
- self reference–when a writer references another work of their own
- single reference–when a writer connects their work to another through allusion
- causal reference–when an allusion is made but it is not essential to the story
- corrective reference–when a writer references another work that is in opposition by comparison
- apparent reference–when a writer alludes to a specific source but in a challenging way
- multiple references–when a writer uses a variety of allusions
Examples of Allusion in Literature
As a literary device, allusion is used for context in a literary work through reference to a well-known or familiar person, place, event, or other work of literature. In this way, allusions help develop a relationship between a writer’s creation and its association with something else that the reader would recognize. This is effective in developing characters. creating settings, and contextualizing a story. Most literary allusions are not directly explained to the reader, but instead rely on the reader’s inferential ability.
Here are some examples of allusion in well-known literary works:
Example 1: The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison)
Here is the house it is green and white it has a red door it
is very pretty here is the family mother father dick and
jane live in the green-and-white house they are very happy
see jane she has a red dress she wants to play who will play
with jane see the cat it goes meow-meow come and play
come play with jane the kitten will not play see mother
mother is very nice mother will you play with jane mother
laughs laugh mother laugh see father he is big and strong
father will you play with jane father is smiling smile father
smile see the dog bowwow goes the dog do you want to
play do you want to play with jane see the dog run run
dog run look look here comes a friend the friend will play
with jane they will play a good game play jane play
In her novel, Morrison alludes to the familiar wording of the reading primer series Dick and Jane, used as part of educational curricula from the 1930s to the 1970s. The series featured simple, repetitive wording and pictured a white, middle class family made up of a boy, girl, mother, father, dog, and cat living in an idyllic American neighborhood. In this passage, Pecola’s character challenges the language, intention, and aesthetic of the Dick and Jane series by running the words together and making them difficult to understand for the novel’s reader.
This reflects the breakdown and disparity of images in Pecola’s mind between her environment and experience as an African American girl in 1940 Ohio, and the white children in the world of Dick and Jane. Morrison’s use of allusion to Dick and Jane as a literary device is effective in that it is widely recognized and understood by readers, and gives meaning to the meaninglessness Pecola finds in the primer’s words.
Example 2: Nothing Gold Can Stay (Robert Frost)
Nature’s first green is gold,Her hardest hue to hold.Her early leaf’s a flower;But only so an hour.Then leaf subsides to leaf.So Eden sank to grief,So dawn goes down to day.
Example 3: As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner)
While I waited for him in the woods, waiting for him before he saw me, I would think of him as dressed in sin. I would think of him as thinking of me as dressed also in sin, he the more beautiful since the garment which he had exchanged for sin was sanctified. I would think of the sin as garments which we would remove in order to shape and coerce the terrible blood to the forlorn echo of the dead word high in the air.
Faulkner’s novel relies heavily on the reader’s ability to deduce and infer plot elements and character motivations. This is particularly true with Addie Bundren’s character, as she is limited to narrating one chapter through death. In this passage, Addie remembers her adulterous affair with Reverent Whitfield that produced her son Jewel. This passage is an allusion to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s literary work The Scarlet Letter in which Hester Prynne conceived a child through her affair with Reverend Dimmesdale.
Faulkner’s use of this allusion helps contextualize Addie’s character, her relationship with Jewel, and the fractured structure of her family. However, Faulkner is relying on the reader to catch this brief allusion to Hawthorne’s work, infer its significance and meaning, and apply that to his own novel. If the reader misses or misinterprets Faulkner’s subtle allusion, then it is ineffective and without meaning.