What is an allusion? In writing, it’s when an author makes an indirect reference to some, person, place, thing, bit of literature, or other idea that originates from outside his or her text. It hints at something readers are expected to know. So the author doesn’t explicitly tell what it is. Allusion can effectively reinforce the message or theme of a work without explaining it.
Allusion isn’t the same as allegory (a character or event that represents some real-world problem or occurrence) or foreshadowing (a hint at what will come later). And, of course, it isn’t at all the same thing as illusion. Synonyms for allusion include reference, mention, suggestion, or hint.
Using allusion has several benefits for writers:
- It builds a stronger connection with the audience through shared knowledge.
- It builds authority and trust.
- It adds meaning and symbolism to the writing.
- It provides a way to show and not just tell..
Allusion can be most powerful in literature, but it can be used in almost any kind of writing, including news opinion pieces, descriptive essays, or even term papers. It can be especially effective in comedic pieces when the author applies the allusion in a way opposite from what the reader would expect.
For allusion to work, the reader has to be familiar with the reference. American audiences might not get references to Chinese legends, for example, which would resonate strongly with a Chinese readership. It would also not work to allude to forgotten authors or little-known historical events.
Some examples of allusion
Even non-religious people can easily relate to certain Biblical allusions, for example:
- the Good Samaritan
- 40 days and 40 nights
- turn the other cheek
- David and Goliath
Ancient Greek and Roman history and literature also provide numerous useful allusions, including:
- the Trojan horse
- the Ides of March
- Helen of Troy (the face that launched a thousand ships)
- Cupid’s bow (Actually, calling anything erotic alludes to his Greek name.)
Plenty of more recent literature provides common allusions
- Lilliputian” as something petty and small-minded and “yahoo” as a rude, uncouth, violent person both allude to Gulliver’s Travels.
- “No man is an island” quotes John Donne.
- A catch-22 situation, some predicament with no apparent way out, refers to Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22.
- Dismissing someone’s political attitudes as “let them eat cake” alludes, however unfairly and inaccurately, to Marie Antoinette.
- Do I even need to explain Waterloo or any of the following?
- Cheshire cat grin
Today’s popular culture likewise provides many possibilities for allusion. Identify a certain little old wise person everyone can. Yada, yada, yada.
Two literary examples of using allusion
Writers can simply drop most of the allusions I’ve mentioned so far into a sentence and go on. In To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, Atticus and Jem are comparing their being poor to another family. Atticus says, “the crash hit them hardest.” “Crash” alludes to the stock market crash of 1929. Jem (and the readers) understand, so Atticus has no need to explain himself further.
In fact, we probably use a lot of allusions in conversation without thinking of it. But good writers can craft allusions to powerful effect. Here are just two examples.
“Call me Ishmael,” the opening sentence of Moby Dick, alludes to a Biblical character, as do the names of Ahab and other characters. Ishmael was the first son of Abraham by a concubine. He mistreated Abrahams’s son by his wife and was driven out. So readers can expect Melville’s Ishmael to be an outcast with violent tendencies.
The name of Ahab’s ship the Pequod, is a less obvious allusion. English settlers nearly drove the Pequot tribe to extinction in the 1630s. Allusion isn’t the same thing as foreshadowing, but Melville uses is to foreshadow the ship’s destruction at the end of the novel.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech opens, “Five-score years ago, a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”
He did not say, “A hundred years ago, Abraham Lincoln . . . “His opening recalls the opening of Lincoln’s most famous speech. Surely everyone in the audience thought of Lincoln. And everyone knew who had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. So King chose to open his speech not by giving a history lesson, but by evoking thought of something familiar. His allusion made an immediate connection to his audience that a more direct explanation could not have accomplished.