What are Literary Allusions? Definitions & Examples in Literature
Allusions are one of the most common literary devices in both classic and contemporary literature. Even if you’re not familiar with the term or you’re not sure what it means, you’ve definitely come across them before. Allusions feature in poetry, novels, short stories, stage plays, films, comic books, and even advertising slogans! In just about any medium that tells a story, you’ll be sure to find allusions.
So what is allusion in literature, exactly, and why do we use them in our writing? Let’s explore everything we need to know, including some helpful allusion examples in literature.
What is allusion in literature?
In a story, an allusion is a subtle, indirect reference to a moment or idea that your reader will recognize. This reference might be to another work of literature, a film, a popular song, a political movement, a moment in history, or sometimes a moment from an author’s own life.
True allusions are generally more subtle than direct references. For example, if you’re caught in the middle of an argument between two people and you tell them they make you feel like Mercutio from Romeo and Juliet, then you’ve made a direct reference to the popular Shakespeare play—you just told them so! But if instead you tell them that they make you want to curse a plague on both their houses, that’s a more subtle allusion to the same Shakespeare play.
In writing, allusions can be very clever and catch the reader off guard. In fact, reading an expertly placed allusion can be one of the most enjoyable parts of a story. They can be funny, or thought-provoking, or add more depth to a rich and powerful theme.
Types of allusions in literature
So now that we know the basics of what a literary allusion is, here’s a closer look at the specific types of allusions you’ll see in writing.
A literary allusion is when a story alludes to another novel, a short story, a stage play, a film, a poem, or a piece of music—anything that has a real author’s name attached to it. If you can identify the alluded-to work as coming from one creative source, it’s a literary allusion.
For example, in his novel Firestarter Stephen King says, “Rainbird was a troll, an orc, a balrog of a man.” This is an allusion to the work of JRR Tolkien: although trolls are classic figures of folklore, both orcs and balrogs are Tolkien’s original literary creations. This allusion creates a clear, distinct image for the reader, while acknowledging a beloved literary influence.
A cultural allusion is when a story alludes to something that has become a part of the society’s wider consciousness, or something that the world is currently facing in contemporary society. This might be an allusion to classical mythology, politics, history, folklore, popular media, or major current events.
Sometimes allusions can straddle the line between being literary and cultural. For example, many works of literature make allusions to classic fairy tales such as Snow White, _Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, or the Frog Prince. The versions of these stories we all know come to us from the interpretations the Brothers Grimm set down in their famous volumes of stories; this makes them literary allusions. However, many of those stories have existed for much longer than before the Grimms got to them, changing and shifting as they passed through one culture or one era to another. This also makes them cultural allusions.
Another example of a cultural allusion might be more recent work like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Every version of this story we know came down from one writer, and yet the story and its world have become so deeply entrenched in contemporary culture that they’re part of an eclectic pantheon of modern folklore. Phrases like “down the rabbit hole” and iconic images like the Cheshire Cat are easily recognizable by people who haven’t even read the book. In this way Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is both a literary allusion and a cultural one.
An autobiographical allusion is when the author makes an allusion to something in their own life. This is using the literary device of allusion in an intimate and personal way.
Most of the time the average reader won’t be able to identify an autobiographical allusion, because they have no special insight into the personal life of the writer (unless maybe they’re doing a PhD on their work!). An autobiographical allusion is usually for the benefit of a select few friends and family who will recognize it, or it may even be for just yourself as a writer.
For example, the character of Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s magnum opus Ulysses is widely believed to have been based on his common law wife, Nora Barnacle. While historians have picked apart the similarities between Molly and Nora and the timeline of their relationship and of the novel’s creation, there are likely many allusions in the story to Joyce’s relationship with Nora that no one will ever know outside the two of them.
Another example is Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which he has pronounced to be his most autobiographical book. But how much of the story’s events contain allusions to his own time growing up, and how much is fiction? We may never know for sure.
Using autobiographical allusion can be a personal way to communicate something in your story with the people you love, or the people who have supported you, or even just to process aspects of your life on the page.
Allusion vs. illusion vs. elusion
There are a few words that sound very similar to “allusion,” but they’re spelled differently and all mean different things. It can be hard to tell them apart just by hearing them.
An allusion, as we looked at above, is a literary device that indirectly references an idea from another work of literature, an aspect of popular culture, a moment or period of history, or a personal experience. Sometimes when people talk about “pop culture references,” what they actually mean is allusion.
An illusion is a false sensory perception—usually visual, though it can apply to any of our senses. If you see a vision of something that isn’t really there, that’s an illusion. Sometimes the word illusion can refer to a false pretense or understanding, too; someone might be under an illusion that the company they work for is honest, or a discordant couple might create an illusion of stability for their children.
An elusion is a clever escape or avoidance of something. You might say, “he was a master of elusion when it came to bath time.” It’s more common to see this word used as a verb—to elude, or eluded—or an adjective—“he found sleep elusive.”
What is the purpose of allusion in writing?
Now we understand what allusion is and the different types of allusions you’ll see in literature. Let’s take a closer look at why writers like to use this literary device in a story.
To establish setting
Allusions can be used to create a clearer sense of your story world and of the time you’re writing about. By alluding to culture that was popular in a particular era, or that’s associated with a certain type of person, you can communicate something to the reader about the world they’re becoming immersed in.
For example, you can help establish time and place by having your characters allude to films or TV series that were popular at a certain time. If they make an allusion to Cheryl Ladd’s Charlie’s Angels role, or a childhood spent watching Scooby Doo or The Jetsons, the reader has a sense of the era in which your characters are living. You can also do this by alluding to pivotal moments in history, such as the stock market crash of 1929, to help crystallize your time period and the people in it.
To convey character
The type of allusions your characters make can also reveal something about their personality. A character who alludes to The Fast and the Furious in conversation will probably be different a very different character than one who makes allusions to The Bell Jar. Or, maybe they are they same character—using allusions in unexpected ways like this is a great way to create dynamic contrasts that give your characters more dimension.
When writing allusions for your characters, make sure to check that the allusion makes sense for the character you’ve created. It should communicate something new about the character as you understand them in your story world, rather than simply communicating something that you as the writer might have thought in their circumstance.
For example, an aging woman in a retirement home making an allusion to the latest Hollywood action film might seem a little jarring. Is there a reason for it, and does it make sense with the woman’s lifestyle? If so, keep going. If not, have a rethink.
To support your story’s theme
One of the greatest powers of allusion is underlining the major themes of your work. By creating connections between your story and other stories that have come before yours, you help build those ideas more vividly for the reader.
For example, if your story’s theme has to do with social prejudice and inequality, you might make an allusion to To Kill a Mockingbird, a literary work the reader will likely have at least a passing familiarity with.
If your story’s theme has to do with overcoming first impressions and looking beyond what’s on the surface, one of your characters might allude to reading Pride and Prejudice, a famous story about those same themes.
Since the groundwork for these stories is already laid within the reader’s mind, you can simply borrow some of their thematic emphasis by showing the reader, in an indirect and unconscious way, how those stories and yours intersect.
To connect with readers
Using allusion creates a bridge between the world of your story and the world of your reader. By alluding to major events, popular culture, or timely literary works, you can make your story seem even more relatable and accessible.
The TV series Gilmore Girls, for example, was famous for using widespread allusions to other series, films, books, and famous personalities. This helped the show connect the audience with the characters and made them feel like they were bonding over the same things.
Allusions can create a warm, personal intimacy in your story that makes it feel more present to your reader. One risk, however, is that pop culture is constantly shifting and allusions to what’s currently popular can become dated very quickly. While new readers may love catching your clever and timely allusions when the story is new, other readers may not pick up on all of them or enjoy them in the same way a few years later.
To create a storytelling community
Multiverses are all the rage these days, but shared worlds didn’t begin with Hollywood blockbusters. When a writer makes an allusion to the work of another writer, they’re creating a sense of community and connection between storytellers. This is true even if one of the writers is no longer living, or if they’ve never met; they’re linked by their shared storytelling journey.
Sometimes writers will intentionally “trade” allusions as a way of honoring each other’s work. For example, the bestselling fantasy novelists Holly Black and Cassandra Clare are known to be good friends, and at times they will drop in allusions to each other’s stories. In Holly Black’s novel Ironside, thereI’s an allusion to the “Mortal Cup,” a mystical artifact from Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series. This is a great way to build bridges between yourself and a writer you admire; plus, it’ll give your readers something exciting to look for in your work, too.
To process personal feelings
Hollywood gossip rags love to pick apart chart-topping pop songs for their allusions. What did this celebrity really mean by this line? Why do they keep referencing this one particular hotel? When this singer crooned about “blue eyes,” whose blue eyes was she referring to? Cue the tabloid sales.
We may enjoy laughing and hypothesizing at the secrets between the lines, but the truth is that art of all mediums can be a very personal sort of therapy. Many writers will use allusions in their stories to deal with volatile emotions and make some sense of difficult experiences. If your toxic ex used to write down reminders and shopping lists on their white converse shoes, you can absolutely create a villain who writes “Note to self: kill hero” on their white converse shoes. You’ll feel better, and your biographer will love you for it when you’re rich and famous.
Allusion examples in literature
To wrap up, let’s look at a few effective examples of allusion in literature.
The Latinist, by Mark Prins
The Latinist is an academic thriller loosely based on the Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo. To emphasize its mythological roots in a contemporary setting, Prins uses several allusions to Greek myth and legend within the story:
The elevator dinged at the first floor. And at the third, he stepped out, following room numbers through a labyrinth of hallways. He thought of Theseus in the labyrinth, trailing Ariadne’s thread behind him so that he could find his way back out when he killed the Minotaur.
“The Disquieting Muses,” by Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath was known for her use of allusions to myths, legends, and fairy tales in her work. Her poem “The Disquieting Muses,” an ekphrastic poem based on a famous painting of the same name, opens with an allusion to the wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty:
Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury uses several allusions in his groundbreaking classic novel including allusions to the Bible, other works of literature, and moments in history. Here he makes an allusion to the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius that decimated Pompeii in 79 AD. Though it is a small, lighthearted moment, the image of a volcano underlines the novel’s theme of burning:
He was eating a light supper at nine in the evening when the front door cried out in the hall and Mildred ran from the parlor like a native fleeing an eruption of Vesuvius.
Allusion opens up the world of your story
Allusion happens in almost every story. You’ve probably used it in your own writing without even realizing it. Now, by using allusion mindfully to enhance your story, you can connect with readers in a fun, meaningful way.