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What is an Allusion?

Shakespeare was frequently known to include allusions in his writing.
Mark Twain famously alluded to "Hamlet" to mock a character in "Huckleberry Finn".
The goal of an author using allusion is to enhance the audience’s understanding of a text or subject by calling upon other sources.
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  • Last Modified Date: 31 October 2014
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An allusion is a reference to a concept, person, thing, or event. The allusion is often indirect and can come from any number of sources such as literature, history, religion, myths and legends, or popular culture. When an author or speaker alludes to something, he or she assumes that the reader or listener will recognize the reference and will be familiar with the source. In rare circumstances, an allusion may be intended for a select group and not every reader will understand the reference.

A literary example of allusion would be the comedic monologue performed by the duke in Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. When the duke begins, “To be, or not to be, that is the bare bodkin,” readers know immediately that Twain has alluded to the original soliloquy of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet “To be or not to be, that is the question…That patient merit of th'unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make, With a bare bodkin…” Twain has alluded to Hamlet, but has turned the words around to showcase the idiocy and falseness of the duke.

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T.S. Eliot’s “Gerontion" (1920) also uses allusion in referring to the “hot gates” which refer to the fifth-century B.C. Battle of Thermapylae between the Greeks and the Persians. In “Gerontion," Eliot says, “I was neither at the hot gates, Nor fought in the warm rain.” This might be an example of a reference intended for a small group of readers, those familiar with Greek writing.

An allusion can also be found in some instances of pop culture. When an individual jokes that they plan to make someone an offer they can’t refuse, we hear the echoes of Don Corleone’s famous words in The Godfather (1972), “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” Another example of allusion would be Rhett Butler’s famous words at the end of the book and movie versions of Gone With the Wind. Anyone who says, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” is alluding to Butler’s final departure from Scarlet O’Hara’s life.

The goal of an author or speaker using allusion is to enhance the audience’s understanding of a text or subject by calling upon other sources.

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whiteplane
Post 5

@Summing - While I agree that allusions can be used to great and poetic effect, I think they can also be a crutch or a cheap move in the hands of a lesser author. Used poorly, an allusion tries only to remind the readers of the greatness of someone else's work and claim for themselves some of that greatness. Is it kind of like getting your picture taken with a famous movie star. Despite your proximity, you have not suddenly become friends. Just because a piece of writing makes allusions to another great work does not mean that it can claim any of that greatness for itself

summing
Post 4

Allusion in literature is one of the most sophisticated devices that an author can experiment with. No writer works in a vacuum and no creative work is the result of a singular process of invention. This is to say that everything owes a debt to the things that have come before it. Using allusions is a clever way for an author to pay tribute to the writers, books and ideas which have been an influence on their own production

truman12
Post 3

I have heard that American Pie by Don McClean is just a long series of allusions to to different cultural and historical artifacts that were swirling around the ephemera of the 60s. Am I correct in this? Can anyone comment on where the lyrics come from? I've always loved that song and there is something so unique about the lyrics he sings

chivebasil
Post 2

@anon8804 - While I agree that this article might not be great for young readers, I'm not sure that it needs to be. Allusions are complicated creative tricks which require the reader to make several connections and association in their head. By and large they are absent from children's and young adult literature. In the same way that young readers do not needs to perfectly understand iambic pentameter, they do not need to understand allusion until later.

Furthermore, with allusions, I think it is more important to know that an allusion has been made than to understand exactly what an allusion is. For example, The Simpsons is filed with references to other creative products. A viewer can enjoy the joke that has been made and even pick up on the reference without saying in their head, "that is an allusion to ..." The important part is making the connection to the earlier work which is a skill that cannot really be taught.

anon88004
Post 1

i think that this article is not relevant to young readers that might be addressing this site for a good definition. I think that some examples would be good, or better wording.

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