An allusion in a text is an indirect or implicit reference to a person, place, event, object, statement, or even theme. Allusions can occur in works of fiction as well as non-fiction.
Often this reference occurs "in passing," which means that the reference is not accompanied by much commentary or discussion; to the contrary, the author usually will make the reference subtly and then move on. Typically, an allusion will refer to a work of art, literature (including the Bible), or philosophy. Alternatively, an allusion can refer to the author or creator of a work of art, literature, or philosophy. Lastly, it is also common for an allusion to refer to a significant event from history.
You should also be attentive to allusions to religion, theology, mythology, and pop culture. Because allusions are often indirect or implicit, not all readers will recognize every allusion, but the identification of allusions enables the reader to engage a text in a fuller and more meaningful way.
Examples of Allusion
Note: Each of these examples comes from a work of literature but allusions are not limited to literature; allusions are frequent in painting and sculpture, as well as cinema.
Allusion to Art: "It was a Mona Lisa smile, the meaning of which no one could figure out." (Here Richard Preston refers to the famous da Vinci painting in his nonfiction thriller The Hot Zone)
Allusion to History: I was neither at the hot gates / Nor fought in the warm rain (T.S. Eliot uses these lines from "Gerontion" to allude to the Battle of Thermopylae)
Allusion to Literature: I remember / Those are pearls that were his eyes (T.S. Eliot uses these lines in The Waste Land to allude to Shakespeare's The Tempest)
Allusion to Philosophy: “Good-bye, Miss Quested.” He pumped her hand up and down to show that he felt at ease. “You’ll jolly well not forget those caves, won’t you? I’ll fix the whole show up in a jiffy.” (E.M. Forster alludes to Plato's Allegory of the Cave throughout his novel A Passage to India)
Allusion to Mythology: “Take Cupid’s wings and fly higher than the average man.” (Here Shakespeare alludes to the Roman god Cupid in Romeo and Juliet; while Shakespeare refers to Cupid explicitly, by name, the real potency of his allusion requires some background knowledge of the Roman god in order to grasp more fully the significance of the reference)
The Etymology of 'Allude'
ad = "towards"
ludere = "to play"
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Image Credit: Reference by Priyanka from the Noun Project
- Literary Devices