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What Is the Function of Allusion in Literature?

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  • Written By: Daniel Liden
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2016
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Allusion is a technique used in literature in which a literary work references another work of literature, work of art, historical figure, place, or event. In general, this passing reference is not explained by the writer, so only readers who are familiar with the referenced work tend to notice it. Writers use allusion in literature for a variety of different reasons. In some cases, a literary reference is used simply because it already communicated what the writer wants to say better than he could have himself. In most cases, though, writers make allusions because of the many emotions or ideas that readers may associate with the works to which the writer alludes.

Biblical allusions are among the most common types of allusion in literature. Biblical allusions are so prevalent because the Bible is widely read, so more people are likely to notice and recognize Biblical references. Additionally, many people, particularly those with religious backgrounds, make strong emotional and intellectual associations with certain passages of the Bible. The use of the Biblical allusions serve not only to communicate lines from the Bible, but also to evoke the many emotions and ideas that people associate with those passages. Allusion, then, goes far beyond the literal words on the page and taps into a body of thought and emotion that people associate with other subject matters.

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In many cases, allusions serve a more specific purpose than simply tapping into a body of associations. In some cases, a reference to another work is given in a context that is drastically opposed to the original meaning. This technique is often used to refute the meaning of the original and to assert a new meaning. Other uses of allusion in literature actually reference several different sources simultaneously in order to create new associations and to force the reader to evaluate one or more works in the context of others.

Some works of literature are densely pack with allusions, many of which refer to specific and obscure works that the general reader could have little hope of understanding. To the highly educated reader, however, this can lead to a complex reading experience packed with emotionally and intellectually charged associations. An individual who does not understand most of the references, on the other hand, might find the reading to be completely incomprehensible. Some writers use allusion in literature in this way in order to create a complex and association-filled reading experience. Others do so in order to make a reading experience filled with challenges and puzzles that can only be solved with a great deal of research and study.

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Fa5t3r
Post 4

@MrsPramm - I would also hazard that biblical allusions in literature are fairly easy for the average person to spot, even if they aren't particularly well read.

The whole story about someone dying as a sacrifice and then rising again is played over and over in Western literature.

MrsPramm
Post 3

@irontoenail - Well, I think it's preferable if the allusion works without excluding a reader who doesn't understand it. One example of an allusion in literature like that might be Animal Farm. There are plenty of people who might not know enough of the history of communism to understand that different characters in that book relate directly to historical figures. The events are essentially parallel as well.

But you can still enjoy the book and even get the message from it, even if you don't catch the allusions. It might be rare to find a book with that kind of subtlety but there definitely are some out there for people to enjoy.

irontoenail
Post 2

I think it's really annoying when writers use too many obscure allusions and expect the reader to figure them out. It just seems like they are deliberately making sure that their writing isn't accessible to everyone who wants to read their book.

I think that's just kind of snobbish. I'm glad that it isn't so much of a trend now.

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