An allusion is a figure of speech that references a person, place, thing, or event. Each of these concepts can be real or imaginary, referring to anything from fiction, to folklore, to historical events and religious manuscripts.
For example, a woman might say to her husband, “Thanks, Romeo,” after he’s offered some type of romantic gesture. Traditionally, Romeo (from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) is looked upon as one of the most romantic fictional characters in history. In this example, the wife would have succeeded in telling her husband he’s wonderful, simply by alluding to this fictional romantic man.
These references can be direct or indirect, but they will often broaden the reader's understanding. Let’s explore some examples of allusion.
Allusions are an artful way of telling a story. They allow the writer to avoid bland tones and common, obvious statements. Instead, a little bread crumb can be dropped in an allusion and the reader can exercise their minds trying to figure out the author’s intent.
Since they ask the reader to engage in a little “outside the box” thinking, it’s often a good way to reinforce the message or theme of a work. By the same token, these rhetorical devices allow the writer to offer an example or convey a message without going into a lengthy discourse. Let’s take a look at some examples of allusion in literature.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
In Moby Dick, the 19th-century whaling ship is named Pequod. That might not mean much to us today but, when Moby Dick was published, much of the population would have known about the Native American tribe called the Pequot.
During the Pequot War of 1636-1637, they were nearly driven to extinction. So, to name a ship after a nearly-eradicated group of people can only allude to one thing. Indeed, the whale destroys the Pequod, as well as all the other whaling ships, killing everyone but the narrator.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
In Act 3, Scene 4 of this Shakespearean play, the title character of Hamlet describes a portrait of his late father while alluding to three Greek gods. He cites Hyperion, who had curly hair; Jove, who had a prominent forehead; and Mars, the god of war. The allusion meaning here is clear and, now, we know more about the man who raised Hamlet. Here’s the text:
See what a grade was seated on this brow,
Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself,
An eye like Mars’ to threaten and command…
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury used allusions very well. In one line, the volcano Vesuvius is cited. In 79 A.D. Mount Vesuvius erupted, destroying the neighboring city of Pompeii and all its residents. Through this allusion, we understand one of the characters, Mildred, was running faster than she’d ever run - as if her life depended on it:
“Mildred ran from the parlor like a native fleeing an eruption of Vesuvius.”
Another strong example is an allusion directed at another character, Montag. Montag begins to notice “Cheshire smiles” on the faces of those around him. This is a nod, or an allusion, to the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, known for its mischievous ways.
“Montag stopped eating… he saw their Cheshire cat smiles burning through the walls of the house.”
As you explore the themes of Fahrenheit 451, you'll find other examples of allusion.
The Bible is one of the most widely studied texts in all of history. People have read into its meaning for centuries upon centuries. Certain stories stand out more than others, such as the Good Samaritan or Adam and Eve’s fate in the Garden of Eden.
As such, it’s gone on to create a mountain of allusions, most of which we hear in our everyday speech. 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 taught 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’s been raining 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. They can convey a great deal of information in just a few short words. That said, because allusions make reference to something other than what’s directly being discussed, readers may fail to understand it them if they don’t understand the underlying event, tale, or reference point.
Still, why not have fun with them? Include them in your next piece of writing. Just make sure your readers will be able to pick up what you’re putting down. Along those lines, here are some tips on writing a bestseller. Throw in a bit of allusion and, someday, the local book club might be assessing your brilliant prose, too!