An allusion is a figure of speech that makes a reference to a place, person, or event. This can be real or imaginary and may refer to anything, including fiction, folklore, historical events, or religious manuscripts. The reference can be direct or may be inferred, and can broaden the reader’s understanding.
There are several ways that an allusion can help a writer:
- Allusions engage the reader and will often help the reader remember the message or theme of the passage.
- Allusions allow the writer to give an example or get a point across without going into a lengthy discourse.
Allusions are contingent on the reader knowing about the story or event that is referenced.
Here are some examples that allude to people or events in literature:
- “I was surprised his nose was not growing like Pinocchio’s.” This refers to the story of Pinocchio, where his nose grew whenever he told a lie. It is from The Adventures of Pinocchio, written by Carlo Collodi.
- “When she lost her job, she acted like a Scrooge, and refused to buy anything that wasn’t necessary.” Scrooge was an extremely stingy character from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
- “I thought the software would be useful, but it was a Trojan Horse.” This refers to the tale in Homer's Iliad where the Greeks built a large, hollow wooden horse to hide soldiers in. It was given as a gift to the enemy during the Trojan War and, once inside the enemy's walls, the soldiers broke out. By using trickery, the Greeks won the war.
- “He was a real Romeo with the ladies.” Romeo, the lead character in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, is considered to be a true romantic hero, and won over Juliet against her family's wishes.
- “Chocolate was her Achilles’ heel.” This means that her weakness was her love of chocolate. Achilles is a character in Greek mythology who was thought to be invincible. His mother dipped him in magical water when he was a baby, and she held him by the heel. So his heel was the only part of him not protected by the magic.
There are many biblical allusions that are used in our everyday language and in writing.
Here are a few examples:
- “He was a Good Samaritan yesterday when he helped the lady start her car.” This refers to the story of the Good Samaritan who was the only one to stop and help a man in need.
- “She turned the other cheek after she was cheated out of a promotion.” This comes from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus teaches that you should forgive someone who has wronged you and not seek revenge.
- “This place is like a Garden of Eden.” The Garden of Eden was the paradise God made for Adam and Eve.
- “You are a Solomon when it comes to making decisions.” This refers to the story of King Solomon, who was given great wisdom by God.
- “When the volcano erupted, the nearby forest was swallowed up in dust and ash like Jonah.” In the Bible, Jonah was swallowed whole by a whale.
- “It is raining so hard, I hope it doesn’t rain for 40 days and 40 nights.” This refers to the story of Noah and the ark he built when he was told by God that it would rain for 40 days and 40 nights and flood the land.
Allusions are a useful literary tool as they can convey a great deal of information in just a few words. However, because allusions make reference to something other than what is directly being discussed, you may fail to understand it if you do not know the underlying event, tale or other reference point. So think about the pros and cons of allusions when using them in your writing.
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Examples of Allusion
By YourDictionaryAn allusion is a figure of speech that makes a reference to a place, person, or event. This can be real or imaginary and may refer to anything, including fiction, folklore, historical events, or religious manuscripts. The reference can be direct or may be inferred, and can broaden the reader’s understanding.
How to Write an Allusion
You can create your own allusions by bringing up words or images from earlier in your work (internal allusion) or by bringing them in from an outside source (external allusion). It’s pretty easy to do once you get the hang of it.
- Observe the parallel between your idea and the source material. You may notice that a painting, myth, Bible story, or other source material somehow mirrors what you want to say. Maybe the characters undergo a similar experience – or maybe there’s a historical event that’s somehow related.
- Replace the general language with an allusion. Here are some examples of what this might look like:
You’re going to create a whole lot of problems with this sort of behavior!
You’re going to open up Pandora’s box with this sort of behavior!
“In the forest, everything was peaceful and beautiful.”
In the forest, everything was like the Garden of Eden.
- Observe the parallel between your idea and some earlier moment in the text. Ideally, this is the sort of thing you should plan ahead for. If you know that a certain idea is central to your argument or story, you can be on the lookout for places to allude back to it.
- Borrow the words from the first time the idea appeared. This is key! In order to make the allusion land, you want to use the same words again. (There’s a good example of this in §7.)
Here is an example from a history paper about two Civil War generals. Imagine that these are topic sentences for separate paragraphs at different points in the paper:
- Generals Sheridan and Forrest both had great energy and charisma.
- They also employed similar tactics in battle.
- Generals Sheridan and Forrest both had great energy and charisma.
- Their energy and charisma enabled both Sheridan and Forrest to employ daring tactics in battle.
Notice how the internal allusion helps the reader to see how the two sentences are related. The words “energy and charisma” are repeated to emphasize this allusion.
When to Use Allusion
How and when you use allusion depends on what you’re writing.
In formal essays such as term papers and the like, internal allusion is an indispensable technique for making your argument stick together. By alluding to an earlier idea or point that you made, you can show the reader how the whole paper is building up a single, coherent whole. From time to time, you can do this explicitly, but more subtle allusions are also effective. Here’s an example from a history paper:
Alexander the Great failed to conquer India because his troops became unruly and homesick.
Homesickness and poor morale reared their heads once more during the campaigns of Julius Caesar.
Notice how, in the allusion, the writer doesn’t just come right out and say that Alexander and Caesar had similar stories. In fact, the name Alexander isn’t even mentioned! But nonetheless, it’s clear that the writer is alluding to his or her earlier statement about Alexander in India. This is a pretty subtle example of allusion.
Here’s a more direct way of making the same allusion:
Just like Alexander the Great, Julius Ceasar had to deal with low morale and homesickness among his troops.
Do not use external allusion in formal essays. Instead, use citations. This is for two reasons:
- An external allusion can come perilously close to plagiarism, which is using another person’s work without giving them credit. Citations are a way to avoid this pitfall.
- Overuse of external allusion can sound pretentious or pointless in a formal essay – it may give the impression that the writer just wants to show off how many books he or she has read without saying anything of substance about them.
Internal allusion has a very similar effect in creative writing to the one it has in formal essays. It lends overall coherence to the narrative, and helps the reader follow the “thread” of the author’s words.
External allusion, however, can be much more effective in creative writing than in formal essays. As we saw in §1, allusions to Bible stories and Greek mythology are everywhere in Western literature, and there’s no reason you can’t adopt this technique in your own writing. You can allude to any story or work of art that you think your reader will be familiar with – external allusions won’t work if your reader is unfamiliar with the source material!
Be aware, though, that overuse of external allusion in a creative piece can also have the problem of sounding pretentious or pointless. If done without care, it just reads like you want to say “look how much I’ve read!” Any time you want to employ an external allusion, it’s important to make sure that you’re doing it for some real creative purpose – not just to show off your knowledge of other authors.
In short, you can always use internal allusion to great effect in your writing, alongside explicit references and (in formal essays) citation. External allusion requires more caution, but can still be very effective in creative writing.