What is an Allusion?
Allusion is a literary device or figure of speech that refers back to a previous event, work, or story. Allusions are left unexplained and are often indirect, so it is up to the reader to piece together the meaning of an allusion using their own knowledge or research. Today, we will look at some examples of allusion from literature before briefly discussing some ways that you can use allusions to enhance your own writing.
Allusions in Everyday Speech
Now, like I mentioned, an important element of allusion is that it is a passing reference—it is left unexplained, relying instead on the knowledge of the reader to piece it together. As such, the writer trusts that the intended reader has the knowledge required to understand the allusion.
For instance, in everyday speech one might say, “Way to go, Romeo!” without any sort of explanation as to what that phrase means. This is of course an allusion to Shakespeare’s character from Romeo & Juliet that requires the listener to have knowledge of the play (most of us do on some level, whether we’ve read the play or not). We know automatically that the person being called “Romeo” is in some way romantically involved, although the context is key in order to determine what exactly was meant by the phrase. If said with a sarcastic tone, for example, the speaker might be criticizing this person for doing something that is in fact very unromantic. Ultimately, “Romeo” is an allusion to a historical, literary work.
Other allusions in everyday speech include “You’re a regular Einstein” or “This place is like the Garden of Eden”. Most of us know that the person is not literally Einstein in this case and that the place is not literally the Garden of Eden; instead, we use our knowledge of Einstein (“genius”) and the Garden of Eden (“perfect paradise”) in order to interpret the speaker’s intended meaning.
Allusions are commonly used in literary works. Experienced authors refer back to Shakespeare quite often, for instance, or Biblical events and Greek tragedies. These older sources are quite popular, though newer sources are also used. Before we get any further, let’s look at some specific examples of allusions:
Martin Luther King, Jr. used the phrase “Five score years ago…” in his “I Have a Dream” speech. This is a reference to President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which originally began with “Four score and seven years ago…” As you can see, King’s phrasing is a subtle reference, hence an allusion! By doing this, he was able to accomplish a few things: 1) It connects the Civil Rights movement with the abolition of slavery, thus showing the pressing nature of both and suggesting that gaining equal rights is a crucial next step in terms of social progress 2) It refers back to a moment in history of great significance 3) It recalls, and by doing so, adopts the authority of President Lincoln.
Another, more modern example would be Big Brother. Big Brother is used quite often in writing and in everyday speech. This refers to the always-watching presence from George Orwell’s 1984 which tells the story of a dystopian world under a constant state of government surveillance. When used in writing or speech, Big Brother is a way of referring to mass surveillance or governmental abuse of power. Note again, too, that this is understood if one is familiar with the plot of Orwell’s novel. In this case, using Big Brother also functions as shorthand because it is much quicker to use this term than to get into a long discussion of government abuse and mass surveillance.
Achilles’ heel alludes to Homer’s Iliad, the Greek epic. The epic’s hero, Achilles, has one point of vulnerability—his heel. As such, references to Achilles’ heel are often used to refer to a point of great vulnerability. This can also be used jokingly. For example, one might say that chocolate is their Achilles’ heel, which is of course an exaggeration. This might be a way of using an allusion to avoid saying something bland like “I really, really like chocolate.”
Allusions in Your Own Writing
So what about using allusions in your own writing? There are several reasons for doing so:
Firstly, allusions allow you to simplify ideas: Think back to the Big Brother example – this allows you to get your point across without going into a deep discussion about government surveillance and totalitarianism. In this way, the idea is both simplified and you don’t need to spend a lot of time explaining it.
Secondly, alluding to events can create powerful parallels: Think back to the King example and his use of “Five score years ago…” the phrase which echoed Lincoln’s phrase in the Gettysburg Address. Consider, for example, using similar phrases from history when writing a persuasive essay. If you’re writing a persuasive essay with the goal of persuading readers to take action on climate change, then you might think of famous phrases or texts from history and recycle or recall these phrases or ideas. Which famous phrases have been used in the past when fighting for social causes? These might just work as parallels for the present fight against global warming.
And thirdly, a little rhetorical flourish can go a long way: Allusions usually make your writing more interesting. For one, they show knowledge of literature, history, and culture in general. In this way, you are able to produce credibility in your writing (you might know this as ethos); you, in a sense, become more trustworthy and authoritative. While I wouldn’t suggest simply “showing off,” many teachers and professors might find allusions to literary or historical sources impressive.
As you can see, allusions are very useful literary devices or figures of speech used in everyday speech and writing. Learning to use them thoughtfully in your writing can really go a long way toward enhancing the effect of your work!
Before we go, here’s a review question to test your knowledge:
Which of these statements about allusions is false?
- Allusions refer to previous events
- Allusions can help simplify ideas
- Allusions can make your writing more interesting
- Allusions explain what they refer to for the reader
Remember, if you are explaining your reference, it is no longer an allusion.
Thanks for watching, and happy studying!