Allusion is a brief and indirect reference to a person, place, thing or idea of historical, cultural, literary or political significance. It does not describe in detail the person or thing to which it refers. 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. It is just a passing comment and the writer expects the reader to possess enough knowledge to spot the allusion and grasp its importance in a text.
For instance, you make a literary allusion the moment you say, “I do not approve of this quixotic idea,” Quixotic means stupid and impractical derived from Cervantes’s “Don Quixote”, a story of a foolish knight and his misadventures.
There are several ways that an allusion can help a writer:
- Allusions engage the reader and will often help the reader remember the message or theme of the passage.
- Allusions allow the writer to give an example or get a point across without going into a lengthy discourse.
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.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.
Allusion Examples in Everyday Speech
The use allusions are not confined to literature alone. Their occurrence is fairly common in our daily speech. Look at some common allusion examples in everyday life:
- “Don’t act like a Romeo in front of her.” – “Romeo” is a reference to Shakespeare’s Romeo, a passionate lover of Juliet, in “Romeo and Juliet”.
- The rise in poverty will unlock the Pandora’s box of crimes. – This is an allusion to one of Greek Mythology’s origin myth, “Pandora’s box”.
- “This place is like a Garden of Eden.” – This is a biblical allusion to the “garden of God” in the Book of Genesis.
- “Hey! Guess who the new Newton of our school is?” – “Newton”, means a genius student, alludes to a famous scientist Isaac Newton.
- “Stop acting like my ex-husband please.” – Apart from scholarly allusions we refer to common people and places in our speech.
Examples of Allusion in Literature
Let us analyze a few examples of the use of allusions in literature:
Milton’s “Paradise Lost” gives allusions a fair share. Look at the example from Book 6 below:
“All night the dread less Angel unpursu’d
Through Heav’ns wide Champain held his way, till Morn,
Wak’t by the circling Hours, with rosie hand
Unbarr’d the gates of Light. There is a Cave
Within the Mount of God, fast by his Throne”
In the above lines “dread less Angel” is a reference to “Abdiel”, a fearless angel. “Circling Hours” alludes to a Greek Myth “The Horae”, the daughters of “Zeus” and “Themis” namely “Thallo (Spring), Auxo (Summer) and Carpo (Fall). “ With rosie hand” Milton refers to Homer’s illustration of the “rosy fingered dawn” (Odyssey Book 2).
Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” is replete with instances of allusions. Read the example from Act III below:
“Learnèd Faustus, to find the secrets of astronomy
Graven in the book of Jove’s high firmament,
Did mount him up to scale Olympus’ top,
Where, sitting in a chariot burning bright,
Drawn by the strength of yokèd dragons’ necks,
He views the clouds, the planets, and the stars.”
Jove’s high firmament refers to the outer stretches of the universe. “Olympus’ top” is an allusion to Greek Mythology where Mount Olympus is home of gods. Similarly, “a chariot burning bright” refers to a Greek Myth of “god Apollo” who is said to drive the sun in his chariot.
In Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, “the two knitting women” whom Marlow sees alludes to “Moirae” or Fates as visualized in Greek Mythology:
“The two knitting women increase his anxiety by gazing at him and all the other sailors with knowing unconcern. Their eerie looks suggest that they know what will happen (the men dying), yet don’t care”
The thread they knit represents human life. The two women knitting black wool foreshadows Marlow’s horrific journey in the “Dark Continent”.
We find a number of allusions in Keats’s “Ode to the Grecian Urn”. For example:
“Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?”
“Sylvan” is a goat-like-man deity of Greek mythology. “Tempe” alludes to the “Vale of Tempe” in Greece, a place (from Greek mythology) frequently visited by Apollo and other gods. Likewise, “the dales of Arcady” refers to the home of “Pan”, the god of rustic music.
There are many biblical allusions that are used in our everyday language and in writing.
Here are a few examples:
- “He was a Good Samaritan yesterday when he helped the lady start her car.” This refers to the biblical story of the Good Samaritan.
- “She turned the other cheek after she was cheated out of a promotion.” This comes from teaching of Jesus that you should not get revenge.
- “This place is like a Garden of Eden.” The Garden of Eden was the paradise God made for Adam and Eve.
- “You are a Solomon when it comes to making decisions.” This refers to King Solomon, who was very wise.
- “When the volcano erupted, the nearby forest was swallowed up in dust and ash like Jonah.” Jonah was a person who was swallowed alive by a whale.
- “It is raining so hard, I hope it doesn’t rain for 40 days and 40 nights.” This makes a reference to the biblical story of Noah and the ark he built. He was told by God that it would rain for 40 days and 40 nights and flood the land.
Function of Allusion
By and large, the use of allusions enables writers or poets to simplify complex ideas and emotions. The readers comprehend the complex ideas by comparing the emotions of the writer or poet to the references given by them. Furthermore, the references to Greek Mythology give a dreamlike and magical touch to the works of art. Similarly, biblical allusions appeal to the readers with religious backgrounds.