Writing

Allusion in Writing (Definition, Usage + Examples)

Posted: January 4, 2023
Word count: 1,368 (5 min)

An allusion is a literary device that refers to something (a great book or character) in an indirect way, that is, an apparent reference is made not in an explicit way.

Tomas Laurinavicius profile photo

Tomas Laurinavicius

Co-founder & Chief Editor, Best Writing

Blog post cover picture

What is an allusion?

We have all come across the word 'allusion' somewhere. Well, it is a pretty common word, thrown around every now and then. Suppose you love writing and that is why your classmate teases that you are the Bard of the class! That is an allusion for you right there. They mean Shakespeare.

An allusion is a literary device that refers to something (a great book or character) in an indirect way, that is, an apparent reference is made not in an explicit way. Oxford Reference defines an allusion literary device as, "An indirect or passing reference to some event, person, place, or artistic work, the nature and relevance of which is not explained by the writer but relies on the reader's familiarity with what is thus mentioned. The technique of allusion is an economical means of calling upon the history or the literary tradition that author and reader are assumed to share, although some poets (notably Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot) allude to areas of quite specialized knowledge."

Allusion aims to make a contrast and connection in the reader's mind to achieve a target of correctly expressing something and making the reader feel exactly how the author interprets the writing.

What are the types of allusion?

Allusion comes from the Latin word allusio meaning to signify a metaphor or a pun. It comes from the verb form 'allude' which means to make reference to something.

Single Allusion

These ones have only one meaning and no further interpretations. Hence the name. The allusion made only alludes to one event or one person.

Casual Allusion

As the name suggests, casual allusions are not a crucial part of the context. They are casual remarks made to parallel a situation but it goes nowhere. It is a passing allusion when a character feels something but moves on.

Self Referential Allusion

When a writer refers to their own works in the past it is a self reference. Most books which are part of a series are self referenced allusions. For example, The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster.

Corrective Allusion

These allusions seem to rectify the parent source although they may not intend to do that.

Conflation

Conflations are many allusions concentrated in a single sentence or paragraph.

Why is allusion important in writing?

Allusion is one of many literary devices used by writers to make comparisons and expressions. Allusion helps the author in a number of scenarios. Allusion helps the reader refer to a common emotion the writer alludes to, to understand a more complex, abstract emotion in the text. The writer alludes to a familiar feeling and uses that to convey a different and complex meaning.

Allusions make a text more enriched and deep because it contains references from a variety of subjects and knowledge. Any good literary work contains a fair share of allusions to even greater ideas and the reader's ability to decode the referencing helps them gain deeper knowledge.

Allusions provide a prologue to the readers and a sense of context. Obscure meanings can be conveyed through familiar allusions from history, fiction, poem, and mythology. Both the author and the reader use allusion as a stepping stone in unravelling the work of literature.

Examples of Allusion

Literary Allusions

Nothing Gold Can Stay, Robert Frost

"Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.”

This is a reference to fall from paradise or the fall of man, a biblical tale.

Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare

"We’ll have no Cupid hoodwinked with a scarf.

You are a lover. Borrow Cupid’s wings.

Oh, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you." (Act I, Scene iv)

This refers to the mythical story of Cupid.

Moby Dick, Herman Melville

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time tozz get to sea as soon as I can.

Herman Melville in Moby Dick introduces a biblical allusion to Ishamel from the Books of Genesis, who is known to be an outcast from his family and this reference helps us understand a lot about the character Ishamel in the story.

Classical and Biblical Allusions

Achilles Heel

Achilles' heel refers to the mythical figure Achilles and his vulnerable heel which resulted in his downfall. This allusion is used to denote physical weakness and other vulnerabilities of character.

Pandora's Box

Pandora's box signifies temptations and evils that can be generated in the world due to it. Pandora opened the box out of curiosity left in possession of her husband and revealed unspeakable evils unto the world.

Cupid

Cupid is famously known as the god of love and desire. Today this allusion is so overly used that it has become a cliche. Cupid is a Roman god whose counterpart in Greek mythology is Eros. When someone says they have been struck by Cupid's arrow, they mean they have fallen in love.

Cross

This refers to the biblical story of Christ and his crucifixion. Jesus sacrificed himself for the good of the people and was nailed to the cross during this.

Everyday Allusions

Allusion examples from literature and myths have made their way into everyday speech. Biblical stories, classical myths, and historical events all contribute to the host of allusions we have collected today. As new events take place of massive significance new examples of allusion is made. The following examples are allusions we find in everyday speech.

I was dying of thirst and some good Samaritan brought me some clean water.

The biblical story of a good stranger.

Don't be such a scrooge, enjoy the Christmas carol.

A reference to Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Cakes are like kryptonite to me.

Kryptonite is Superman's weakness.

Such accusations would open Pandora's box worth of trouble.

Pandora opened a box that released evil unto the world.

The school Principal was treated like he who must not be named.

A reference to Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling.

I am trying to focus on myself but social media is my Achilles heel.

The referencing of Achilles' downfall due to vulnerabilities, from Greek mythology.

Going to work in the railway station is like pushing a rock up the hill every day.

A reference to The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. Sisyphus pushed up the same boulder uphill every day for eternity and it used to express the tediousness of a task.

Summary

An allusion is a literary device that writers use to make a reference to past work, event, person or film and it is done in an indirect way. For example, a writer alluding to a task that requires great effort can say it is a Herculean task. It is important to have knowledge of common allusions to understand historical and literary references.

The allusion is an important part of writing. It connects similarity in the writing and the allusion familiar to the reader. It helps the writer explain a complex idea to the reader using things they are used to.

Allusion amplifies the greatness of something. It also pays respect. For example, when Martin Luther King alludes to Abraham Lincoln in his famous speech starting as, "Five score years ago..." (I Have a Dream) it bridges the same issues that appear in both their speeches.

As a reader, one must make themselves familiar with common allusions to understand a text better. Reading more books, finding out the meaning of all the references, and knowing the major historical events, milestone films and figures will help anyone with a better grasp of allusions.

Newsletter

Best Writing Newsletter ✍️

Writing tips and examples, best reads, cool tools, jobs, and friendly encouragement to do your best writing. Sent weekly, on Thursdays.

Sent weekly, on Thursdays. Costs $0. Unsubscribe anytime. · Let me see it first