is a figure of speech that makes a reference or representation of or to a well-known person, place, event, literary work, myth
, or work of art. M.H. Abrams defined allusion as "a brief reference, explicit or indirect, to a person, place or event, or to another literary work or passage". It is left to the reader or hearer to make the connection (Fowler); an overt allusion
is a misnomer for what is simply a reference. An Allusion is an incidental mention of something, either directly or by implication.
In a freer informal definition allusion is a passing or casual reference; an incidental mention of something, either directly or by implication.
Scope and history
is a literary term, though the word also has come to encompass indirect references to any source, including allusions in film
or the visual arts
. In literature allusion is used to link concepts that the reader already has knowledge of with concepts of discussed in the story. In the field of film criticism, a film-maker's intentionally unspoken visual reference to another film has come to be called a homage
. It may even be sensed that real events have allusive overtones, when a previous event is inescapably recalled by a current one. "Allusion is bound up with a vital and perennial topic in literary theory, the place of authorial in interpretation", William Irwin observed, in asking "What is an allusion? Without the hearer or reader's comprehending the author's intention, an allusion becomes merely a decorative device.
Allusive substitutions are as old as English: see kenning. Allusion is an economical device, a figure of speech that draws upon the ready stock of ideas or emotion already associated with a topic in a relatively short space. Thus, an allusion is understandable only to those with prior knowledge of the covert reference in question. (See cultural literacy...)
is an allusion: by metonymy
one aspect of a person or other referent is selected to identify it, and it is this shared aspect that makes an allusion evocative. In an allusion to "the city that never sleeps", New York will be recognized. Recognizing the figure in this condensed puzzle-disguise additionally serves to reinforce cultural solidarity between the maker of the remark and the hearer: their shared familiarity with The Big Apple bonds them. Some aspect of the referent must be invoked and identified, in order for the tacit association to be made; the allusion is indirect in part because "it depends on something more than mere substitution of a referent The allusion depends as well on the author's intent; an industrious reader may search out parallels to a figure of speech or a passage, of which the author under examination was unaware, and offer them as unconscious allusions— coincidences that a critic might not find illuminating. Addressing such issues is an aspect of hermeneutics
William Irwin remarks that allusion moves in only one direction: "If A alludes to B, then B does not allude to A. The Bible does not allude to Shakespeare, though Shakespeare may allude to the Bible." Irwin appends a note: "Only a divine author, outside of time, would seem capable of alluding to a later text. This is the basis for Christian readings of Old Testament prophecy, which asserts that passages are to be read as allusions to future events.
Types of allusion
, brief allusions could be made to mythic themes of generations previous to the main narrative because they were already familiar to the epic's hearers: one example is the theme of the Calydonian boarhunt
. In Hellenistic
Alexandria, literary culture and a fixed literary canon
known to readers and hearers, made a densely allusive poetry effective; the poems of Callimachus
offer the best-known examples...,
In discussing the richly allusive poetry of Virgil's Georgics, R.F. Thomas distinguished six categories of allusive reference, which are applicable to a wider cultural sphere. These types are
- 1) Casual Reference, "the use of language which recalls a specific antecedent, but only in a general sense" that is relatively unimportant to the new context;
- 2) Single Reference, in which the hearer or reader is intended to "recall the context of the model and apply that context to the new situation"; such a specific single reference in Virgil, according to Thomas, is a means of "making connections or conveying ideas on a level of intense subtlety";
- 3) Self-Reference, where the locus is in the poet's own work;
- 4) Corrective Allusion, where the imitation is clearly in opposition to the original source's intentions;
- 5) Apparent Reference ""which seems clearly to recall a specific model but which on closer inspection frustrates that intention" and
- 6) Multiple Reference or Conflation, which refers in various ways simultaneously to several sources, fusing and transforming the cultural traditions.
Allusion differs from the similar term intertextuality in that it is an intentional effort on the author's part. The success of an allusion depends in part on at least some of its audience "getting" it. Allusions may be made increasingly obscure, until at last they are understood by the author alone, who thereby retreats into a private language.
A literature has grown round explorations of the allusions in Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock or T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland
Martin Luther King, Jr., alluded to the Gettysburg Address in starting his "I Have a Dream" speech by saying 'Five score years ago..."; his hearers were immediately reminded of Abraham Lincoln's "Four score and seven years ago", which opened the Gettysburg Address. King's allusion effectively called up parallels in two historic moments.
An allusion may become trite and stale through unthinking overuse, devolving into a mere cliché, as in some of the following examples:
15 minutes of fame
, a 20th-century American artist most famous for his pop-art
images of Campbell soup
cans of and Marilyn Monroe
, commented about the explosion of media coverage by saying, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."
Today, when someone receives a great deal of media attention for something fairly trivial, and he or she is said to be experiencing his or her “15 minutes of fame”, the allusion is to Andy Warhol's famous saying.
This phrase comes from a novel by Joseph Heller
is set on a U.S. Army Air Force
base in World War II
. The “catch-22” refers to a regulation that states an airman’s request to be relieved from flight duty can only be granted if he is judged to be insane. However, anyone who does not want to fly dangerous missions is obviously sane. Thus, there is no way to avoid flying the missions.
Later in the book the old Woman in Rome explains that Catch-22 means, "They can do whatever they want to do." This refers to the theme of the novel in which the authority figures consistently are abusing their powers, leaving the consequences to those in their command.
A “Catch-22” has come to mean, in common speech, an absurd or no-win situation.
T. S. Eliot and James Joyce
The poetry of T. S. Eliot
is often described as "allusive", because of his habit of referring to names, places or images that may only make sense in the light of prior knowledge. This technique can add to the experience, but for the uninitiated can make Eliot's work seem dense and hard to decipher. The most densely allusive work in modern English is Finnegans Wake
. Joseph Campbell, Henry Morton Robinson and Edmund L. Epstein provided A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake
(1944) that unlocked some of James Joyce
's most obscure allusions.
- Pasco, Allan H. Allusion: A Literary Graft. 1994. Charlottesville: Rookwood Press, 2002.