Definition of Allusion

An allusion is a literary device used to reference another object outside of the work of literature. The object can be a real or fictional person, event, quote, or other work of artistic expression. Allusions can be shorthand for adding emotion or significance to a passage by drawing on the reader’s prior associations with the object.

The word “allusion” comes from the Latin for “to play with” or “to jest.” Though the definition of allusion does not necessarily include humor, many jokes do indeed allude to recent events or famous people. Most allusions “play with” the original source material in the sense that they use the reference for new purposes.

Examples of Allusion in Common Speech

  • Big Brother: Now a reality television show in countries across the world, the term Big Brother comes from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 (he, in turn, may have taken the phrase from a WWII-era billboard). Whereas it once just described a familial relation, “Big Brother” is now shorthand for referring to mass surveillance and abuse of government power.
  • Watergate: The 1972 scandal at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Since the event, the suffix –gate has been added to many dozens of names to refer to scandals. These scandals are generally in politics, but can be in other fields as well, and can be of any proportion, from the relatively trivial “Bendgate” of 2014 when the iPhone 6 Plus was shown to bend under pressure, to “Irangate”, referring to the Iran-Contra affair of the mid-1980s during the Reagan Administration.
  • 15 minutes of fame: In 1968, artist Andy Warhol made the comment, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” The phrase “fifteen minutes of fame” is frequently used now, especially with the advent of reality television and social media. Though it has entered the realm of cliché, the saying “fifteen minutes of fame” is an allusion to Warhol’s original statement.
  • Catch-22: Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22 centers around a group of soldiers during World War II who try to keep their sanity on an Italian island. Heller describes the following problematic situation with no solution: if a soldier is deemed crazy, he can be discharged from the army. However, if he applies to be discharged this proves he is not crazy. The phrase “Catch-22” has entered the English language as a situation that has no good solution, and is an allusion to Heller’s novel.
  • Achilles’ Heel: Achilles was a figure in Greek mythology who was a hero of the Trojan War and was featured in Homer’s Iliad. He was said to be invulnerable except for at his heel. Thus, when Paris shot Achilles in his heel the wound proved mortal. The term “Achilles’ heel” now refers to a strong person’s one point of weakness.

Significance of Allusion

Authors use allusions intentionally, though it is the reader’s responsibility to understand the reference. Allusions can create meaning in a work that is lost if the reader doesn’t grasp the reference. Therefore, allusions can be a test of a sort of cultural literacy. It is thus also much more difficult for modern readers to understand all of the allusions in older works of literature, or literature from other cultures. This is one of the primary reasons that works such as Dante’s Inferno and Homer’s Odyssey require so many footnotes.

Allusions use the original reference as a point of departure, but they can also change the referent and add meaning retroactively. Allusions create intertextuality in this way. It is important to note, though, that allusions can only go in one direction. For example, William Faulkner can allude to Shakespeare with his title “The Sound and the Fury”, but Shakespeare cannot allude to Faulkner. However, a modern reader familiar with Faulkner is probably unable to read the original lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth without thinking of Faulkner’s work: “it is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”

Examples of Allusion in Literature

Example #1

Then turning, I to them my speech address’d,
And thus began: “Francesca!  your sad fate
Even to tears my grief and pity moves.
But tell me; in the time of your sweet sighs,
By what, and how Love granted, that ye knew
Your yet uncertain wishes?” She replied:
“No greater grief than to remember days
Of joy, when misery is at hand. That kens
Thy learn’d instructor. Yet so eagerly
If thou art bent to know the primal root,
From whence our love gat being, I will do
As one, who weeps and tells his tale. One day,
For our delight we read of Lancelot,
How him love thrall’d. Alone we were, and no
Suspicion near us. Oft-times by that reading
Our eyes were drawn together, and the hue
Fled from our alter’d cheek. But at one point
Alone we fell. When of that smile we read,
The wished smile so raptorously kiss’d
By one so deep in love, then he, who ne’er
From me shall separate, at once my lips
All trembling kiss’d. The book and writer both
Were love’s purveyors. In its leaves that day
We read no more.”

(Dante’s Inferno)

This excerpt from Dante’s Inferno includes two important allusions that the reader must understand to know what Dante is trying to say. Both allusion examples are to love stories that would have been known by the culturally literate of Dante’s day: the true stories of Francesca and of Lancelot. Francesca, daughter of the Lord of Ravenna, fell in love with her husband’s brother, Paolo, and both she and Paolo were put to death for adultery. In this passage, she tells Dante that she and Paolo fell in love over the story of Lancelot, a Knight of the Round Table, whose romance with Guinevere was celebrated.

Example #2

HORATIO: A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets”

(Hamlet by Shakespeare)

This allusion example comes from the beginning of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the character Horatio refers to Julius Caesar. Though this is clearly an allusion to the historical figure, it is also an interesting case of self-reference, as Shakespeare published his play Julius Caesar a year or two before Hamlet. The plot of Hamlet alludes to the historical figure Amleth.

Example #3

The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it. Olympus is but the outside of the earth everywhere.

(Walden by Thoreau)

In this excerpt from Walden, Henry David Thoreau alludes to Olympus. In Greek mythology, Mt. Olympus was where the pantheon of gods lived. By comparing the outside world to Mt. Olympus Thoreau is saying that nature holds all the wondrousness of the home of the gods.

Example #4

The Cunninghams are country folks, farmers, and the crash hit them hardest.

(To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

This line from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird references “the crash”, which is an allusion to the Stock Market Crash of 1929 that led to the Great Depression. Without understanding this allusion, the line would be confusing as the reader would be wondering what type of crash affected the Cunninghams so extremely.

Test Your Knowledge of Allusion

1. Choose the best allusion definition:
A. A false or misleading impression of reality.
B. A reference to another object outside of the work of literature.
C. An imitation of another work of literature.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet contains an allusion?
A. Immoderately she weeps for Tybalt’s death,
B. And therefore have I little talked of love,
C. For Venus smiles not in a house of tears.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: C contains an allusion to the Greek goddess Venus.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following titles is not an allusion to Shakespeare?

A. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (late 14th century)
B. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962)
C. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012)
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A cannot be an allusion to Shakespeare as Chaucer predated him, and thus is the correct answer. The title from B, “Something wicked this way comes,” appears in Macbeth, and “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars” is a line from Julius Caesar.[/spoiler]