We do it all the time with friends, when we start a sentence by saying, “This is like that time when,” then we drop a reference to an inside story only our friends can know. It’s a common communication technique and a way for two parties to relate by referencing something they share in common. And it works.
Use it in literature, and this practice becomes the art of allusion—yes, with an “A.” In art, allusions go a step beyond metaphor and assume the reader or viewer understands your reference to an older work. But what separates an allusion from a plain reference, and how can you use it to liven up your writing?
What Is an Allusion?
An allusion is a reference, often indirect, to a person, place, event, or literary work with which the audience may already be familiar.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “Cheshire cat grin,” it refers to the fictional cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There is no such thing as a Cheshire cat, of course, which means that any reference to a Cheshire cat has to be a reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—at least, for the people who know there’s a Cheshire cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
And that’s what makes the allusion definition different from a classic reference. With an allusion, there’s an assumption of familiarity. Your audience should already know enough about the reference in question so they can piece together the rest of your meaning.
Examples of Allusions
“Don’t bring those chocolates near me,” you may say. “They’re my Achilles’ heel.” This common reference is also an allusion to classic literature, whether you know it or not.
As Greek mythology tells us, Achilles’ mother Thetis dipped him in the River Styx as an infant. But she held him by his heel, leaving him dry, and therefore mortal, in one spot. During the Trojan War, Achilles proved himself the greatest warrior among the Greeks, though this vulnerability ultimately proved his downfall.
We use the phrase “Achilles’ heel” today as an allusion for a fatal flaw on an otherwise heroic figure—or, more simply, the weakness that brings our downfall. In fact, we often use “Achilles’ heel” and “kryptonite” interchangeably—Superman’s one weakness. This, too, is an allusion because it assumes knowledge of the Superman story.
The Old Man and the Sea
Ernest Hemingway’s 1950s novella told a simple story of an old man trying to catch a massive marlin. The story was so simple, in fact, that critics have been trying to uncover deeper meaning since its release. And some believe Hemingway dropped a hint at its deeper meaning with this allusion:
“Ay,” he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.
Although Hemingway never says “crucifixion,” notice the assumption that the audience will know what nailing someone’s hands into wood means. The allusion brings on religious overtones simply by focusing on specific details, even if Hemingway never outright says: “Santiago represents Jesus here.”
The risk of using an allusion? It can go over our heads if we don’t know the original story, either. Again, a “Cheshire cat grin” will mean nothing to someone who isn’t familiar with Lewis Caroll. Fortunately, you don’t have to make a reference to fiction to make an allusion.
Consider the Pequod, the name of the whaling ship in Moby Dick. This allusion often goes over modern readers’ heads. But in the 1800s, many readers might have known the story of the Native American tribe the Pequot. This New England tribe had been wiped out and, because of this, the name of the ship instantly creates a sense of foreboding for anyone familiar with the original (true) story behind the ship’s name.
Examples of Allusions in Poetry
Poetry is full of so many allusion examples that we can completely miss a poem’s meaning unless we look them up. Consider this poem from Emily Dickinson:
All overgrown by cunning moss,
All interspersed with weed,
The little cage of “Currer Bell”
In quiet “Haworth” laid.
Without knowing “Currer Bell,” there’s no way to decipher what’s happening. But knowing that Currer Bell was the pen name of author Charlotte Brontë changes things considerably. Now the reader has to ask themselves what the “cage” represents, rather than letting the line slip by.
T. S. Eliot
Want some allusion reading practice? T.S. Eliot’s famous poem “The Wasteland” is jam-packed with poetic allusion. Consider just one of them in its famous opening line:
April is the cruelest month
It might seem a vague metaphor running contrary to our expectations of spring as a happy time of year. But there’s more to uncover here. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales opens with this line:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
Eliot seems to be preparing us for a vision of his April, which isn’t so soothing.
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Types of Allusion
Eliot is well within his rights to use April as a metaphor without it being an allusion to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. But given other medieval poetry references in The Wasteland (Eliot frequently refers to Dante’s Divine Comedy) and the obvious placement of April in the very first line, the reader is left with an apparent allusion.
The apparent allusion is one that recalls a specific source while also appearing to take a contradictory position. That’s exactly what Eliot does with The Wasteland, immediately referencing Chaucer’s version of a light and happy spring.
An allusion may take place without the author having deep, metaphorical intent. For example, if one character gives a “Cheshire cat grin,” it doesn’t mean that the character is meant to symbolize Cheshire cats throughout the entire novel. It may simply be a way to use allusion to get across the general look of the grin in question.
This is the most direct and obvious form of allusion. The examples above—the crucifixion from The Old Man and the Sea and Achilles’ heel—both form single references from one meaning to the other. However, you can distinguish a single reference from a casual reference by looking for authorial intent.
For example, if Hemingway was trying to say more about The Old Man and the Sea with his religious allusion, it opens up an entirely new world of hidden meanings throughout the text.
Let’s get away from allusions in literature for a moment. When Alex DeLarge walks through a futuristic music shop in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, you can see a soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey in the background. What makes this a self-reference? Kubrick directed both films.
A self-reference allusion is any allusion you make to something you’ve done already. You’ll see it in many directors’ work: in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a scene in Area 51 briefly shows the location of the lost ark, the subject of the 1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark. And Quentin Tarantino’s films are full of self-reference, such as brand names (Red Apple Cigarettes, anyone?) which only exist in his universe.
Multiple References or Conflation
What happens when you make multiple allusions at once? Fortunately, the fabric of space-time doesn’t collapse. It’s not that complicated. However, “conflation” or “multiple reference” allusions are rare because they are more difficult to achieve.
Consider the 2017 film Talking of Michelangelo. The quote is a reference to T.S. Eliot’s poetry, which references women coming and going, “talking of Michelangelo,” who, of course, is a renaissance allusion himself. Conflations are the Russian dolls of stylistic devices: allusions wrapped in allusions.
A corrective allusion is the same as a single reference allusion, except it reverses the flow. Rather than making an allusion that clarifies meaning, a corrective allusion might go against it.
This was a frequent technique in the HBO series The Sopranos, in which the television writers wanted to highlight the hypocritical nature of the central characters. For example, Tony Soprano often complains of the disappearance of the “strong, silent type” from American culture, including figures like Gary Cooper. That’s an easy allusion to understand. But the writers take it up a notch by showing Tony’s personality is full of angst and rage. Despite his protests, he is anything but the strong, silent type.
Become a Master Allusionist
The concept of writing is simple. You have an idea. You have a reader. You want the reader to understand your idea in plain language. Every literary device you use is simply an instrument to solve this central problem.
In this sense, allusions are highly potent tools for your toolbox. They let you tell your reader, “Hey, this is like that one time,” as if you were talking to old friends. You might be telling a new story, but by pointing to an old story, your ideas will make more sense.
Learn to dress your allusions up with subtlety, and you’ll have no problem getting your themes across. Done right, it conjures up even better magic than the master illusionist. You’ll be a master allusionist.
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