"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.
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.
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.
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.