What is an allusion? Don't worry, it's not as big of a Pandora's box as you might think. An allusion is simply a reference to something else, whether this is another text, a person, a historical event, pop culture, or Greek mythology – in fact, allusions can be made to just about anything an author and their readers could think of. This article will help you understand allusions so that you can identify and use allusions in literary texts and in your own writing.

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Table of contents

    If an allusion could be considered a reference to something else, can you spot an example above?

    Allusion: Meaning

    'Allusion' is a literary term that describes a subtle and indirect reference to something, for example, to politics, other literature, pop culture, or history. Allusions can also be made in other mediums, such as music or film.

    Allusion: Examples

    While allusions are most common in literature, they also occur in other places like common speech, film, and music. Here are several examples of allusions:

    In common speech, someone might refer to their weakness as their Achilles heel. This is an allusion to Homer’s Iliad and his character Achilles. Achilles' only weakness is found in his heel.

    The title of the television programme Big Brother is an allusion to George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and the character, called Big Brother, who acts as the poster figure for the government. The concept of the programme is also based on the novel, as it involves constant surveillance of the participants, just as the novel’s characters are perpetually surveilled.

    Allusion, a retro television on a stand, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Image of a retro-television.

    Kate Bush’s song 'Cloudbusting' alludes to psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich’s invention, the Cloudbuster. The Cloudbuster was supposed to create rainfall by controlling orgone energy. Bush’s song, as a whole, explores Wilhelm Reich’s incarceration by the American government through the perspective of his daughter.

    The title of Radiohead’s song called 'Paranoid Android' is an allusion to Douglas Adams’s book series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979). The song title is a nickname that the character Zaphod Beeblebrox gives to the highly intelligent but bored and depressed robot, Marvin. Although the song may not seem relevant to the title, as it is about an experience in an unpleasantly noisy bar, there is a parallel in the fact the character of the song and Marvin both find themselves unhappy and surrounded by happier people.

    Types of Allusion

    Allusions can be categorised in one of two ways, according to the way in which they interact with a source and the type of source they allude to.

    Richard F. Thomas's Categorisation

    In 1986, Richard F. Thomas created a typology for allusions in his analysis of Virgil’s Georgics, which focuses on how writers interact with the source(s) they allude to (or reference, as he 'would prefer to call it').1 Thomas divides allusions into six sub-sections: 'casual reference, single reference, self-reference, correction, apparent reference, and multiple reference or conflation'. Let's take a look at the characteristics of these different allusions with examples.

    A typology is a way of defining or categorising something.

    Note: Thomas created this typology with classical texts in mind, and because of this, it may not always be so easy to find perfectly fitting examples from modern texts. However, these categories still provide a very useful guide as to the different kinds of allusions a text may contain.

    Allusion Characteristics

    Lets take a look at some of the characteristics

    A casual allusion (or reference) is an allusion made that isn’t vital to the narrative but adds an additional depth or 'atmosphere'.

    The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood.In the section describing Serena Joy's garden, Atwood uses allusions to invoke both Alfred Tennyson and Ovid, a poet from ancient Rome. Atwood describes the garden as a 'Tennyson garden' (chapter 25) and evokes the trended imagery used to describe gardens in Tennyson's collection Maud, and Other Poems (1855). Similarly, the description 'tree into bird, metamorphosis run wild' (chapter 25) alludes to Ovid’s Metamorphosis and describes many magical transformations by the Gods. These allusions build up an atmosphere of wonder and admiration for the reader.

    Single Allusion

    A single allusion refers to a pre-existing concept in an external text (whether a situation, person, character, or thing) from which the writer expects the reader to be able to draw a connection to something in their own works.

    Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) makes an allusion to the myth of Prometheus. Prometheus gifted humanity fire without the permission of the Gods. The Gods punish Prometheus for this, by forcing him to spend eternity having his liver repeatedly eaten. The narrative of Frankenstein is very similar to this myth, as Victor similarly creates life and then suffers until his death. Thus, the reader is expected to connect their knowledge of Prometheus’s fate onto the narrative of Shelley's 'Modern Prometheus'.

    Self Allusion

    A self allusion is similar to a single allusion but recalls something directly from the writer’s own works. This could be an allusion to something that occurred earlier in the same text, or it could be an allusion to another text by the same author.

    Quentin Tarantino’s cinematic universe illustrates this type of allusion. He unites the films he directs cinematographically with recurring images (particularly of feet). You will also find allusions to other films in Tarantino's films, whether through brands, characters who are related, or plot references. For example, characters smoke cigarettes from the Red Apple Cigarettes brand in multiple films, and they are also advertised in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). There are several characters who are related in his films, like Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction (1994) and Victor Vega in Reservoir Dogs (1992). References are also made to plots of other films, for example, Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction references the plot of the Kill Bill (2004) series.

    Corrective Allusion

    According to Richard F. Thomas, a corrective allusion is an allusion made that openly and directly opposes a concept made in the referenced text. This may be used to display the 'scholarly' prowess of the writer, but this is not always the case.

    In 'Fragment 16', the classical poet Sappho makes an allusion to Homer’s Iliad by mentioning Helen of Troy. Helen is typically associated with being the most beautiful woman in the world who left her husband (Menelaus) for another man due to lust. Sappho suggests an alternative interpretation – that it was love that moved Helen of Troy to take these actions.

    Apparent Allusion

    An apparent allusion is very similar to a corrective allusion, but, rather than directly opposing a source, it evokes it and then 'frustrates' or challenges it instead.1

    An example of this type of allusion could be found in the end credits of Deadpool 2 (2018), directed by Ryan Reynolds, when the titular character, Deadpool (who is played by Ryan Reynolds), travels back in time to 2011 and shoots Ryan Reynolds before he agrees to join the cast of Green Lantern (2011). Through this apparent allusion, Reynolds is able to challenge and criticise a film that he had acted in.

    A conflating or multiple allusion is one that makes reference to multiple similar texts. By doing this, the allusion references a collection of pre-existing texts to 'fuse, subsume and renovate' (or, to put a fresh spin on) the literary traditions that influence the writer.1

    Ada Limon’s poem, 'A Name', from her collection, The Carrying (2018), absorbs the traditionally accepted narratives for the biblical story of Adam and Eve but alters and renovates them by focusing on Eve’s perspective as she seeks identity within nature:

    'When Eve walked among

    the animals and named them—

    nightingale, red shouldered hawk,

    fiddler crab, fallow deer—

    I wonder if she ever wanted

    them to speak back, looked into

    their wide wonderful eyes and

    whispered, Name me, name me.'

    Alternative Categorisation

    The other way to differentiate between allusions is by the sources that they refer to. There are many types of materials that can be alluded to, here are several examples:

    Literary Allusion

    A literary allusion is a type of allusion that makes reference to another text. The text alluded to is most commonly a classic.

    Mary Shelley's Frankenstein makes allusions to John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) through the comparison of the monster to Satan. The monster explains that, in his isolation, he 'considered Satan as the fitter emblem for my condition, for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the gall of bitter envy rose within me' (chapter 15). This comparison allows Shelley to highlight the hypocritical nature of Gods (or Victor Frankenstein) for creating imperfect things and abandoning them.

    Biblical Allusion

    A Biblical allusion is a specific type of literary allusion that is made when a writer makes a reference to The Bible. These are very common types of allusions within literature because of how influential The Bible is and the number of tales in each of the gospels.

    An example of a biblical allusion is found in Khaleed Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner (2003) through the imagery of the slingshot. The sling is first used by the protagonist, Hassan against his bully, Assef, and then again by Sohrab against Assef, recalling the biblical tale of David and Goliath. In both of these situations, Assef parallels Goliath who stood against the Israelites in battle, and Hassan and Sohrab parallel David.

    Mythological and Classical Allusion

    A mythological or classical allusion is another type of literary allusion that references mythological characters or themes or references to Greek or Roman literature.

    William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597) often makes references to Cupid and Venus in the narrative of the two lovers. These characters are mythological figures associated with divine love and beauty.

    A historical allusion is a reference made to commonly known events in history.

    Ray Bradbury makes numerous allusions to other texts in his novel Fahrenheit 451 (1951), however, he also alludes to other sources. In one instance, the novel alludes to the historical volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii: 'He was eating a light supper at nine in the evening when the front door cried out in the hall and Mildred ran from the parlour like a native fleeing an eruption of Vesuvius' (part 1).

    Cultural allusion is an allusion that references something in popular culture and knowledge, whether music, artwork, films, or celebrities.

    Disney’s cartoon version of The Little Mermaid (1989) provides a cultural allusion through the figure of Ursula. Her physical appearance (in makeup and physique) alludes to the American performer and Drag Queen known as Divine.

    Political allusions are a type of allusion made that draws ideas from and parallels, criticises, or commends political climates or incidents.

    Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale makes several political allusions within the first chapter. The usage of 'electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts' (chapter 1) brings to her reader’s memory the usage of cattle prods by the police as a so-called peacekeeping method. In particular, it alludes to the use of these weapons during the 1960s American Civil Race Riots and condemns the practice through the sympathy evoked in the reader for the characters that are now faced with them. Similarly, Atwood alludes to another political force by naming one of the ranks 'Angels' (chapter 1), which evokes memories of the paramilitary force that was deployed in New York, in 1979, called the Guardian Angels.

    The Effects of Allusion in Literature

    Allusions are very effective in literature. They allow a writer to:

    • Evoke a sense of familiarity by giving characters, places, or moments recognisable contexts. A writer may do this to foreshadow the events of a novel or character as well.
    • Add deeper meaning and insight into a character, place, or scene for a reader through these parallels.
    • Stimulate connections for a reader, making the text more engaging.
    • Create a tribute to another writer, as writers often allude to texts that have significantly influenced them.
    • Demonstrate their scholarly ability in reference to other writers, while also aligning their texts with others through these allusions.

    The Complications of Allusion

    Although allusions are very effective literary devices, they have limitations and are occasionally confused with other things.

    Allusion Confusions

    Allusions are often confused with intertextuality. This is because allusions are casual references to other texts which then established intertextuality.

    Intertextuality is the way in which a text's meaning is connected and influenced by other texts (whether it is a piece of literature, film or art). These are intentional references that are created through direct quotations, multiple references, allusions, parallels, appropriation and parodies of another text.

    The 1995 film Clueless is a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s book Emma (1815). The popularity of this cult classic film then inspired the music video for Iggy Azalea’s 'Fancy' in 2014. These are levels of intertextual references that are created in homage and in inspiration to the preceding texts.

    Allusion Weakness

    Although allusions are very effective literary devices, they do have weaknesses. The success of an allusion depends on the familiarity a reader has with the preceding material. If a reader is unfamiliar with an allusion, the allusion loses any layered meaning.

    Allusion - Key Takeaways

    • Allusions are a way for a writer to create layered meaning. Allusions are intentional and indirect references made to other things, for example, to politics, other literature, pop culture, or history.
    • Allusions can be grouped by the way they allude to something or by the material they allude to. For example, an allusion can be casual, single, self, corrective, apparent, conflating, political, mythological, literary, historical, or cultural.
    • Allusions are effective literary devices because they enhance the reading experience. They help to stimulate additional levels of thought for a reader, add greater depth, and also creates a sense of familiarity.
    • Allusions are only as successful as their ability to be recognised by a reader.

    1 Richard F. Thomas, 'Virgil’s Georgics and the Art of Reference'. 1986.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Allusion

    What is allusion in literature?

    An allusion in literature is an intentional and indirect reference to something. The something may be another text, or perhaps something in politics, pop-culture, art, film or anything in common knowledge.

    What does allusion mean?

    An allusion is an intentional and indirect reference to another thing. It may allude to another text, politics, pop culture, art, film, or anything else in common knowledge.

    What is an example of allusion?

    Calling something your Achille's heel is an allusion to Homer’s Iliad, and the character of Achilles whose only weakness was found on their heel.

    What is the difference between illusion and allusion?

    Other than sounding similar, the two words are very different. Allusion is an indirect and intentional reference to something else while illusion is the deception of the human senses.

    Why are allusions used in literature?

    Allusions strengthen a novel’s influence on a reader as it may make things seem more familiar to them and also stimulate increased thought through these parallels.

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