DefinitionAllusion, in literature, is a figure of speech, which refers to a brief implied or indirect reference to a person, event, thing, or to a part of another text. In other words, allusion is an inexplicit hint to some piece of knowledge that the author presumes the reader will know. Most allusions serve to illustrate or expand upon or enhance a subject. For example:
“She is another Helen”
In the above sentence the subject has been expanded by alluding to Helen of Troy, a mythological figure who was well-known for her matchless beauty. Therefore, the aforesaid allusion implies that the subject is outstandingly beautiful.
EtymologyThe term allusion was borrowed into English in the middle of the 16th century. It derives from the late Latin word allūsiō meaning “a play on words” or “game” and is a derivative of the Latin word allūdere, meaning “to play with” or “to refer to” or “to joke”.
DiscussionAllusion presents a reference in a literary work to something outside of the work. It functions on the basis of background knowledge of the reader, usually on a famous literary or historical person, place or event, or ancient stories, or other literary work. Although little details are provided, the referenced phenomena are readily recognizable by the audience for their historical, literary, or cultural significance. Most frequently allusions are made to past events such as, references to the Bible and Greek or Roman mythology. However, allusions may also be made to contemporary persons or events. Although incompliant with traditional definition, less frequently allusion may also present a reference to something inside of the work.
Allusions are often used within a metaphor or simile. Such a comparison alludes to an event or person that every individual should understand without much explanation. For example: “Your backyard is a Garden of Eden.” (Metaphor); “Your backyard is like a Garden of Eden.” (Simile)
TypesBased on the above discussion allusions could be categorized in the following manner:
- External Allusion: This is the principal and most traditional allusion type. It is called external allusion since it refers to something outside of the text. The audience can easily catch an external allusion since it refers to a person, thing, or event which has been popularly known for an extensive period of time. External allusions are of four types:
- Biblical Allusion: A brief and indirect reference to something in the Bible, which may include a particular scripture, character, or story. For instance, “You are a Solomon when it comes to making decisions.”
- Literary Allusion: An indirect reference to other famous literary works. Often literary allusion is employed to refer to a separate story, legend, myth, and mythological or literary character. For example, “He was a real Romeo with the ladies”; “Chocolate was her Achilles’ heel.”
- Historical Allusion: An indirect reference to history such as, a historical event, character, etc. For example, “He was acting more like Franklin Roosevelt than Adolf Hitler.”
- Pop Culture Allusion: Also called cultural allusion. An indirect reference to a person, place, or event within a specific community or culture. Most cultural allusions are made from popular songs, movies, cartoon shows, TV shows, video games, etc. For example, “You are acting just like Mr. Magoo!”
- Internal Allusion: This is a less frequent allusion type. It is called internal allusion since the author refers to something that has been mentioned in the same work earlier. Internal allusions are hard to catch since the referenced knowledge either lacks popularity or its usage is restricted in the current work only.
- Foreshadowing: Foreshadowing refers to something that hasn’t happened yet. With this device the author gives clues about events that will happen later in the story. Often these clues are so subtle that they can only be noticed or fully understood upon a second reading.
- Quotation: Quotation is a group of words taken from a text or speech and repeated by someone other than the original author in another text. The quoted expression is usually explicitly attributed by citation to its original source, and it is punctuated with quotation marks.
- Citation: Citation is the way by which a formal reference is made to another text. It gives the readers information necessary to validate the source of a fact, or quotation used from another text. With a sharp contrast to allusion, citation is always explicit and direct.
- Allusions enable the writer to express an idea or emotion in a condensed and simple manner.
- Allusions increase the trustworthiness of an argument.
- Allusions help the reader to understand new information such as characters, setting, plot, etc. by relating them to previous knowledge.
- The religious, mythological, and cultural references make the story more engaging and help the reader grasp the message of the text.
- Allusions make a story grand, fanciful, funny, and surprising.
DisadvantagesThe chief disadvantage of allusion stems from its manner of description, which involves a brief reference to a person, thing, or event. Therefore, in order to understand an allusion the audience must have a prior knowledge of the stated reference. If the audience is unaware of it then he will fail to understand the author’s intended message. In such case the text will surely lose its coherence. Hence, sometimes allusions may appear suitable for cultured or educated audience only.
Allusion, delusion, or illusion?Although sound closest, allusion and illusion are dissimilar in meaning. While allusion is an indirect reference to a person, thing, or event, an illusion is a false or misleading impression or perception, either by the senses or by the mind. Contrariwise, delusion refers to false idea or belief caused by mental illness rather than a wrong impression that somebody receives.
ReferencesAbrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. USA: H & H, 1999
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