What is the Definition of Allusion?
Allusion is an undecided but recognizable reference to something else. Usually, it’s going to be a reference to something else in literature. Authors use allusions to make their own text richer. When an author uses an allusion, it gives their own writing the same significance or context that the allusion had.
Let’s look at some examples. Martin Luther King, Jr. started his “I Have A Dream” speech by saying “Five score years ago.” This is a clear allusion to President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Lincoln started with “Four score and seven years ago.” Even though Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t saying the exact same thing, he started out with “Five score years ago”, which is similar enough that people knew he was alluding to President Lincoln’s speech. This reminded people of the significance of the event, and in reminding people of the significance of the Gettysburg Address, it lent significance to the speech that Martin Luther King was making. Let’s look at some other examples.
If someone is alluded to as “Scrooge”, or there’s a Scrooge reference in writing, it’s going to be someone who is not very generous. They’re kind of miserly and they don’t like to share. That would be something that you would have seen in A Christmas Carol where he goes around and sees what his life would be like if he weren’t there and realizes to change his ways. Scrooge was a very miserly man who didn’t want to share with people who really needed it. If you see “Pinocchio”, it’s a reference to someone who was lying. If you see a Trojan horse, it refers to something that is a trick. It looks like the real thing, but really there’s a trap concealed inside.
An Achilles heel is a reference to Achilles from Greek mythology. His heel was his one weak spot, so your Achilles heel would be your weak spot where someone could really get to you. Romeo, from Romeo and Juliet, would be someone who was really good with women; someone who really loved to take girls out on dates and was really good at getting girls to go out on dates with him. “Turn the other cheek” is a Biblical reference. When Jesus told people that they shouldn’t seek revenge, but should instead turn the other cheek if they’re slapped once. Turn the other cheek so you can get hit on the other side of your face. It’s just His metaphor for saying, “Don’t seek revenge. That’s not the Christian way.”
Solomon is another Biblical reference. He was a very wise king, so if you’re referred to as someone who’s like Solomon, it means you’ve got a lot of wisdom. A good Samaritan is another Biblical reference. It refers to the good Samaritan on the road who helped someone when no one else would. A good Samaritan today is someone who helps people or helps a person that no one else is trying to help. Allusions can be used to ground text in a particular time or place, or they can use a cultural reference to make readers feel included. There are lots of reasons that a writer would use allusions.
Every time that you use an allusion, it’s meant to make your text richer and give your text more than it had before. When you’re reading, watch for allusions, and if you see one of these references, say to yourself, “Oh, that’s an allusion. I learned about those. It’s here to make the text richer.” Think to yourself, “What connotations do I get? How do I feel differently reading that word in the text? What did that word or reference do for my interpretation of the text?” Really, that’s what allusion is there for. It’s to add to the text and make it better.
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Last updated: 04/17/2018
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