I. What is Allusion?
Allusion (pronounced ah-LOO-zhun) is basically a reference to something else. It’s when a writer mentions some other work, or refers to an earlier part of the current work.
In literature, it’s frequently used to reference cultural works (e.g. by alluding to a Bible story or Greek myth). Allusion also exists in other art forms – musicians, for example, frequently “allude” to melodies used by other musicians.
The verb form of “allusion” is “to allude.” So alluding to something is the same thing as making an allusion to it.
You’re acting like such a Scrooge!
Alluding to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, this line means that the person is being miserly and selfish, just like the character Scrooge from the story.
II. Examples of Allusion
We see allusion all the time in everyday speech. For example, has anyone ever told you that you were about to “open up Pandora’s box?” This is an allusion to the Greek story of Pandora, the first woman, who accidentally released evil into the world.
I didn’t have any bus fare, but fortunately some good Samaritan helped me out!
This is an allusion to the Biblical story of the good Samaritan, from Luke 10:29-37 – a good Samaritan is someone who helps others in need, just as the Samaritan does in the story.
Allusion is also found in nearly every work of great literature, as well as in scholarly works and all kinds of non-fiction. Once you know what to look for, you’ll see it everywhere! Just keep an eye out for moments when a writer or speaker makes a passing reference to something else.
III. The Importance of Using Allusion
As we saw in the definition, allusion generally falls into one of two categories, each with its own purpose.
This is an allusion to something outside the current document. It might be a book, play, movie, historical event, or even just a common saying or proverb. All that matters is that it has to be something the reader will already be familiar with.
Internal allusion is often harder to catch. It’s when the author makes a reference back to something that has come before in the work. Comedians do this all the time – they’ll tell a joke, and then later on in the evening they’ll tell another joke that uses a line or character from the first one.
IV. Examples of Allusion in Literature
In the graphic novel Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi depicts a fallen soldier being cradled by his mother, a woman in a veil. The image alludes strongly to images of Jesus being taken down from the cross by Mary (external allusion). Later on in the book, Satrapi uses an almost identical image to show a mother fainting into the arms of her husband (internal allusion).
At rest on ocean’s brilliant dyes / An image of Elysium lies (Edgar Allan Poe, Serenade)
This is an allusion to the mythical afterlife of the Greeks, which was called Elysium. In the poem, the “vision of Elysium” is the stars being reflected in the ocean – so Poe is suggesting that the stars are really the Fields of Elysium, where the Greeks believed heroes would go when they died.
ach mouth holds a sinner…head locked inside, he flails his legs (Dante Alighieri, The Inferno)
This creepy line is part of Dante’s description of the lowest level of Hell. In the lowest circle, traitors are placed upside down into the mouths of a three-headed devil – Satan. It’s an allusion to an earlier passage in which Dante describes hypocrites being placed upside-down in holes in the ground as part of their punishment. (“From out the mouth of every font emerged a sinner’s feet; the rest beneath was hid.”) The allusion is made very clear by the use of the word “mouth” in both lines. This internal allusion is meant to represent the parallels between hypocrisy and treachery.
V. Examples of Allusion Popular Culture
A single grain of rice can tip the scale – one man may be the difference between victory and defeat. [Cut to an image of Mulan picking up a single grain of rice with her chopsticks.]
This is a clever visual allusion from the beginning of Disney’s Mulan. In combination with the spoken line, the image strongly suggests that whoever is playing with the rice may be “the difference between victory and defeat” (although, in keeping with the film’s themes of gender, it’s a woman rather than a man).
Ah, Krusty – this is your Waterloo! (Sideshow Bob, The Simpsons)
This is an allusion to the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon Bonaparte suffered a crushing defeat from which he would never recover. Using this allusion, Sideshow Bob suggests that he is about to bring down Krusty just as Napoleon was brought down at Waterloo.
Prometheus is the title of a 2012 science fiction movie starring Michael Fassbender and Idris Elba. This is an allusion to the character Prometheus in Greek mythology, who stole fire from the gods and was sentenced to a terrible punishment after he was caught. This allusion makes sense when you think about the fact that the movie is all about the origins of mankind.
VI. Related Terms
Citation is a formal reference to another person’s work. It’s the accepted scholarly method for showing where you got your facts, quotations, and ideas. Unlike allusion, it can’t be subtle or indirect – that would defeat the purpose! Citations should be as clear and direct as possible, and should always be used when you use even a small piece of another person’s work.
- In Persepolis, the young Marji has a vision of God saying to her, “You are my choice, my last and best choice” ( 8).
- Although he rejected sexism, Gandhi created a movement that many women found to be alienating (Young 2003, p. 97).
- Amartya Sen famously proved that no democracy in history had ever suffered a great famine (Sen 1978).
The specific rules for citation may vary in different contexts – ask for advice if you’re not sure how to do citations properly!
Foreshadowing is a lot like allusion, except that it refers to something that hasn’t happened yet. Authors sometimes do this to give the reader hints about what is about to happen. For example, movies often use TV or radio news reports to foreshadow coming disasters – if you hear the reporter saying something about a gathering storm, you can bet that a main character will be stuck out in it!
As its name suggests, foreshadowing is usually used for negative events, but it doesn’t have to be. If bells play when two characters meet, it may be foreshadowing that they will ultimately get married.