Allusions (ale-LOO-shuhn) are textual references to an object or subject that exists outside the text. They use readers’ prior knowledge and associations to enhance emotion or clarify significance. Literary allusions are typically indirect or implied, meaning readers must make the connection themselves. Allusions can refer to other texts, authors, characters, time periods, places, and events.
The word allusion hails from the Latin alludere, which means “to refer to” or “to play with.” Alludere stems from ludere, meaning “to play,” which inspired several other English words, including collusion, delusion, and illusion. In fact, allusion and illusion are often conflated; however, where an allusion is a brief reference, an illusion is an image that misleads or deceives.
How Allusions Works
To understand allusions, turn to everyday speech. Consider these phrases:
- “It’s hotter than Hades in here.” Hades is the Greek god of the dead, whose name is synonymous with the fiery underworld itself, making this statement an allusion to Greek mythology.
- “His actions exemplify the behavior of a Good Samaritan.” This biblical allusion refers to the Good Samaritan parable, in which a man extends kindness and generosity to an injured traveler, despite their differing cultural backgrounds.
- “Her memoir reads like a true Cinderella” This refers to “Cinderella,” a folk tale in which an oppressed young woman experiences a fortuitous change in circumstances.
Readers’ familiarity with these tales helps them identify the allusions’ reference points and understand what the writer hopes to get across—that it’s really hot, that the man is a kind and charitable person, and that the woman’s memoir is a tale of triumph over limiting or unjust circumstances, respectively.
This ability to create illuminating connections makes allusions a powerful literary technique. Rather than spend an entire paragraph building up a description or explaining an idea, writers can instead incorporate a relevant allusion that is preloaded with meaning.
Allusions are typically brief, singular references, but some recur throughout a work, such as the biblical allusions within William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. In fact, some texts incorporate allusion into their very structures, such as Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which alludes to poems by T.S. Eliot and Robert Browning through character names, locations, and book titles.
However, an allusion is only successful if the audience is familiar with the referent. When it comes to identifying and making sense of allusions, it helps to be well read or well versed in pop culture.
Different Types of Allusion
As the examples above demonstrate, allusions can refer to a myriad of sources. An allusion’s specific type depends on the referenced subject. These are some of the most common types of allusion.
- Religious: Allusions that refer to a religious text or figure
- Historical: Allusions that refer to past events or time periods
- Literary/intertextual: Allusions that refer to a literary text or figure
- Mythological: Allusions that refer to mythological stories or figures
- Autobiographical: Allusions that refer to events in the author’s life
There are different perspectives on what constitutes an allusion; both center around whether the reference is explicit or implicit. Allusions are typically considered indirect or implied; the author provides the clue, and the reader makes the connection on their own. Proponents of this perspective would say direct or explicit connections are references, rather than allusions; direct references to another literary text, then, are intertextual references. However, an alternative school of thought contends that allusions can be direct or indirect, provided they are never explained by the writer. Both perspectives hold that an allusion’s power is its ability to create meaning without additional explanation.
The Functions of Allusion
Writers use allusions to express complex ideas in a simple, accessible way. Think of allusions like golden nuggets that, once found and understood, grant readers a clearer or more nuanced understanding of text. This has the added benefit of keeping readers engaged; someone skimming through a text is liable to miss these brief references.
Writers can also use allusions to attract certain audiences or evoke a specific atmosphere or emotion. For example, biblical allusions appeal to readers with Christian backgrounds; allusions to Greco-Roman mythology can foster a sense of fantasy or epic heroism; historical allusions to war can establish a sense of dread or despair.
Allusions also provide clarity. Imagine trying to explain the feats of hockey star Wayne Gretzky to a baseball fan who has never seen a hockey game. One might say, “Wayne Gretzky is the Babe Ruth of hockey,” alluding to the baseball player’s legacy to put the unknown athlete’s accomplishments into context.
Allusion and Other Literary Devices
There are other literary devices that are closely related to, and even subcategories of, allusion.
- Metonymy uses the name or aspect of one thing to identify something related. For example, “the crown” is commonly used to reference a king or queen.
- Synecdoche uses part of something as shorthand for the whole. “Threads” can refer to clothes, for example, just as “wheels” can refer to a car.
- Sobriquets are descriptive and evocative nicknames and therefore a type of allusion. New York City has several such nicknames, including the Big Apple and the City That Never Sleeps.
- Innuendo is “an oblique allusion,” according to Merriam-Webster. In other words, they are implications or insinuations that are often suggestive or disparaging in nature.
Allusion in Pop Culture
Just as allusions appear in literature, they also crop up in other media, like film and television, comics, theater, and music. Led Zeppelin’s song “Stairway to Heaven” repeatedly mentions a piper who will “lead us to reason”—alluding to the legendary Pied Piper of Hamelin, who used his magic pipe to lure children into caves to exact revenge upon their parents. This gives the song a sense of dark foreboding.
Then, there are the literary allusions that have worked their way into common parlance. A “catch 22” is a problematic or paradoxical situation that a figure cannot escape due to circumstance. The term was coined by author Joseph Heller, who used it to title his satirical war novel Catch-22.
George Orwell’s 1984 is another novel with an outsized influence on pop culture. The concepts of “Big Brother,” “thoughtcrime,” “doublethink,” and “groupthink” all originate from this dystopic work of science fiction—and that’s just a brief selection of 1984 allusions that have become entrenched in the English language.
Examples of Allusion in Literature
1. Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel in which books are outlawed. Part of the novel’s conflict centers upon protagonist Guy Montag’s relationship with his wife Mildred and his distaste for her vapid friends, as evidenced in this passage:
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. Mrs. Phelps and Mrs. Bowles came through the front door and vanished into the volcano’s mouth with martinis in their hands. Montag stopped eating. They were like a monstrous crystal chandelier tinkling in a thousand chimes, he saw their Cheshire cat smiles burning through the walls of the house …
There are two allusions here. The first is a historical reference to Mount Vesuvius, a volcano that erupted in 79 AD, destroying Pompeii and several other Roman cities. “Cheshire cat smiles” is an intertextual allusion to the mischievous, baffling cat from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, whose defining physical characteristic is a wide, toothy grin. Together, these allusions convey a sense of insanity or inanity.
2. John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”
In ancient Greece, odes were lyrical poems that celebrated a person or thing with rich, emotional language. The form was popular among Romantic poets like John Keats, who wrote several, including “Ode to a Nightingale.” This is the first stanza:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
’Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
The two allusions in this stanza, “Lethe-wards” and “light-winged Dryad,” hark back to Greek mythology. Lethe is a river in the Greek underworld, and the Dryad is a tree spirit. These references create a clear distinction between the fantastical, free natural world and human society, which is more structured and constrained. In demonstrating the speaker’s melancholy and respect for nature, the allusions illustrate his desire to shake off the strictures of human society and fly free with the nightingale.
3. Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Albee’s three-act play explores the complex relationship between George and Martha, who invite a young couple, Nick and Honey, into their home one night after a party. George, a history professor, makes literary allusions throughout the play:
GEORGE: People do…uh…have kids. That’s what I meant about history. You people are going to make them in test tubes, aren’t you? You biologists. Babies. Then the rest of us…them as wants to…can screw to their heart’s content. What will happen to the tax deduction? Has anyone figured that out yet? But you are going to have kids…anyway. In spite of history.
NICK: Yes… certainly. We…want to wait…a little…until we’re settled.
GEORGE: And this…this is your heart’s content—Illyria…Penguin Island…Gomorrah…. You think you’re going to be happy here in New Carthage, eh?
There are multiple allusions in this scene. Illyria is the setting of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; Penguin Island alludes to Anatole France’s novel of the same name; Gomorrah alludes to the biblical stories of Sodom and Gomorrah; and Carthage was the site of Dido and Aeneas’s tragic love story in Greek mythology. These literary cities all experience chaos, deceit, or destruction wrought by human behavior, so the allusions to them underscore George’s scathing opinion of modern society.
It’s also worth noting that the play’s very title contains two allusions—first to author Virginia Woolf and second to the song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” from the Three Little Pigs Disney cartoon.
4. Sylvia Plath, “Daddy”
Plath’s confessional poem is littered with allusions to Hitler, Nazi Germany, the devil, and vampires. Each dark reference sheds light on her father’s character and personality while revealing something of her relationship with him:
If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
“The vampire who said he was you” is a biographical allusion to Plath’s repressive husband, the poet Ted Hughes. In characterizing Hughes and her father as vampires, Plath powerfully illustrates the pain both men caused her, as well as the way her relationship with her father influenced her relationships with other men.
Further Resources on Allusion
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Allusions contains more than 900 entries, with explanations and examples for the most common allusions in the English language.
Find more examples of poems that use allusion using the Poetry Foundation database, searchable by topic, time period, and geographic origin.