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What Is a Literary Allusion?

Movies and television often make literary allusions.
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  • Last Modified Date: 24 October 2014
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A literary allusion is a reference in some type of entertainment or work of art to a literary work, usually through a direct quote from the original work. This type of allusion can occur in literature, often as a reference to another book or literary work. Movies and television often make literary allusions as well, including episode names that come from various literary sources, lines of dialogue that directly or indirectly refer to a work of literature, and even character names. Popular culture has also utilized such allusions, and it is not unusual for a literary allusion to be found in a video game, comic book, or evening news broadcast.

Much like any other type of allusion, a literary allusion is a reference within one work to another. If a writer wants to evoke a particular idea or style that was utilized by another work of literary significance, then he or she might make an allusion to that other work. Someone having a character simply reply “Nevermore,” for example, is making a clear and easily recognized literary allusion to the story The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe. Other allusions may be more subtle, such as a character in a book having the same name as a character in a famous work of literature.

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While a literary allusion can be utilized within a written work, such as a novel or other work of literature, such allusions can also be found in other settings. Movies and television shows have increasingly used allusions to literary works to expand upon various ideas in such works. A character might quote a famous passage from a particular work, for example, to indicate the type of interests or attitude that character has. The names of movies and episodes of television often include a literary allusion, which can help establish the idea of that work in the minds of those who understand the allusion.

It has even become somewhat common for readers to find a literary allusion in works of popular culture, including comic books and video games. Comic book characters can frequently be found quoting particularly famous works of literature. The title of a particular comic issue may also be a literary allusion, serving to create a context for the story within the greater body of various literary works. Video games can also include allusions, both within the name of the game and in the characters and events found in the game, providing a richer backdrop for the game world within the literary canon.

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anon356363
Post 2

I am writing a paper on "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" and I need to include an allusion in my introduction paper. Can my allusion be a direct quote from Nelson Mandela that highlights a theme similar to the one I am going to discuss in my paper? Or is a direct quote too specific to be an allusion?

jennythelib
Post 1

If you're reading a recent comic book, changes are that you will understand all or most of its examples of literary allusion.

The problem arises when you are reading older works. You are not steeped in the culture in which that book was written and you might not even realize that an allusion is being made at all! A classic example is Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey," which is a satire of the gothic novels that were so popular at the time. For instance, there's a sign where the heroine finds a mysterious paper in a wardrobe. When she finally has enough light to see, it turns out to be a laundry list! Contemporary readers would have recognized a similar, but "sinister," scene in a popular gothic novel.

In these cases, annotated editions are your friend! These will helpfully explain all the allusions, translate lines written in foreign languages, even explain that different kinds of, for instance, carriages.

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