BlogThe Writing ProcessAllusion: What It Is and How to Use It Effectively

Allusion: What It Is and How to Use It Effectively

Kathy Edens
Copywriter, ghostwriter, and content strategy specialist
Published Mar 12, 2019

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"She’s certainly no Mother Teresa," said John.

Reading that sentence, you immediately know John thinks the person he’s referring to is not a principled individual. In fact, using Mother Teresa as a reference point, you learn a lot about both John and how he views this woman. You infer his opinion instantly, and depending on what comes before and after this comment, you learn more about John and how he thinks.

And you get all of this information from a simple allusion.

Contents:
  1. What is an allusion?
  2. Examples of allusion
  3. Why use allusion?
  4. Final thoughts

What is an allusion?

An allusion is a literary device that adds meaning to your work by alluding or referring to a person, place, or thing that’s considered common knowledge. This could be a reference to a work of art or literature, a famous person, a popular location, a historic event, a cultural norm, etc., that readers use to understand your implication.

Instead of saying, "She was loving, kind, giving, and unselfish and spent her life helping those less fortunate," you could write, "She rivaled Mother Teresa." It’s a succinct way to give your readers an instant understanding. Many writers allude to mythology, Shakespeare, and other literature to prompt readers to flesh out their meaning.

Examples of allusion

We exploit allusion in our everyday speech when we use phrases like, "Don’t open Pandora’s Box," "This is her 15 minutes of fame," or "I’m stuck in a Catch-22." When an allusion crops up in common speech, you know exactly what the person is referring to with no need for them to explain their meaning.

Examples of literary allusions include:

  • The title The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, which alludes to Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
  • Shakespeare alludes to his own Julius Caesar in Hamlet.
  • Walden by Thoreau alludes to Olympus from Greek mythology when he compares nature to Mt. Olympus, where the gods lived.

An allusion can also be subtle, sometimes used to foreshadow. This example uses historical context to foreshadow defeat:

  • The coming day would prove to be Arthur’s Waterloo.

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Sometimes allusion eludes us. For example, James Joyce was deliberately obscure, which is why his work is so hard to get through for some people.

When Joseph Conrad wrote the following passage in Heart of Darkness, he was referring to Greek mythology:

  • The two knitting women increase his anxiety of gazing at him and all the other sailors with knowing unconcern. Their eerie looks suggest that they know what will happen, yet don’t care.

"Two knitting women" alludes to the Fates in Greek mythology and how they knit human life. This foreshadows the upcoming terrifying and horrific journey.

Why use allusion?

You can easily simplify more complex thoughts and emotions by alluding to common references. When writers allude to mythology, they’re bringing the mystical and magical to their work. And when they refer to the Bible, such as calling someone a "Good Samaritan," they’re bringing in religious undertones.

You may refer to someone as a "Scrooge" or "Romeo" to identify their characters to your readers. And quixotic, which means extravagant or unrealistic, is a direct allusion to Cervantes’ character Don Quixote. Allusions can enhance your writing by offering further meaning, or you can use them ironically to compare two dissimilar things. It’s a great tool to reveal unspoken assumptions and biases.

One thing to note when using allusion is you shift the responsibility for understanding your meaning to your readers. Carefully choose your allusions so you don’t make your readers work too hard to figure out what you’re trying to say.

Final thoughts

Now that you understand allusion, you’ll spot it everywhere, not just in literature. Think of a person’s "Achilles’ heel" or someone who’s "an Einstein".

What’s your favorite allusion? Let us know in the comments below how you use allusion in your everyday speech and your writing.

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Kathy Edens
Copywriter, ghostwriter, and content strategy specialist

Kathy Edens is a blogger, a ghost writer, and content master who loves writing about anything and everything. Check out her books: The Novel-Writing Training Plan: 17 Steps to Get Your Ideas in Shape for the Marathon of Writing and Creating Legends: How to Craft Characters Readers Adore... or Despise.

In my soon to be published book, my MFC mutters this line to herself: "Welcome to the party Daisy Buchanan." In reference to a glamorous party setting. Something Daisy might have been at in The Great Gatsby. I think most people know who Daisy Buchanan is.
By elliespetals on 14 March 2019, 08:13 PM
I live with a woman whose writing has a magical palimpsest quality with one meaning dancing with another through implication, allusion, and partially hidden reference, that works by making me think, "I just read one thing, but of course it's this whole other thing related in a way I hadn't previously imagined." The effect is like a trestle crossing for two trains on different levels simultaneously. Your explication of allusion, you've made clear, is one of her tools. Thank you.
By 88-123 on 14 March 2019, 09:42 PM
Can you compare and contrast allusions to clichés? At what point is the reference too common or not original?
By marleen on 15 March 2019, 05:47 AM
Hi Marleen, I think that the often used or overused is the key to that. It is only my opinion but I would say that if you think to yourself 'I hear that a lot' or your gut tells you it sounds trite, you 're looking at a cliche. An allusion is to something outside of the immediate subject but hopefully follows with the reader understanding what is being conveyed as the article said. I tried this: I had to explain who's who in Game of Thrones to my uncle. He stopped listening after an hour. He said it was like 'Counting the teeth in the tigers mouth while it bites through your rib-cage'. Does that work?
By davidmbutcher on 16 March 2019, 07:34 PM
I use them when I write so I don't lose what I am wanting to say. I may not leave it in but it gives me a reference when I go back.
By lorijoanmorgan on 15 March 2019, 10:36 PM
I agree with Marlene and wonder the same thing about cliches. Also curious about illusion as idioms. And for that matter cliches as idioms. That would make for an interesting article. I teach kids, and often use these articles in my classroom for discussions while in literature circles.
By flynn_mel on 16 March 2019, 02:50 PM
Hangs over my head like the Sword of Damocles. In general most use it incorrectly and I use as it is understood.
By Feycha12 on 17 March 2019, 03:27 PM