What is an Allusion? Definition and Examples of Allusion in Writing

Allusion Definition: An allusion is a reference in one work to another significant work, event, person, or place.

What Does Allusion Mean?

What is an Allusion? An allusion occurs in literature when an author indirectly references another work, event, person, or place. The reference may be historical or modern.

Authors and writers use allusions to express a similar sentiment to the object of the allusion or to evoke particular emotions.

Historical Examples of Allusion

For example, in 1963 on the footsteps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The speech begins:

“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”

The Emancipation Proclamation itself is not the allusion, here. Rather the initial words, “Five score years ago,” constitute Dr. King’s allusion. “Five score years ago” is an indirect reference to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Dr. King used the allusion to invoke Lincoln’s actions and to set a precedent for his speech.

Modern Examples of Allusion

While allusions are intended for literary use, they actually occur every day, often in television or music.

Below is an allusion example from Taylor Swift’s song “Love Story:”

Cause you were Romeo, I was a scarlet letter

And my daddy said, “Stay away from Juliet.”

While the song itself is a more direct reference to the love story of Romeo and Juliet, the example of allusion here is actually “a scarlet letter.” Swift references Nathaniel Hawthorne’s text, The Scarlet Letter. She uses this allusion to imply that the speaker in this excerpt, “I”, was somehow off-limits or “taboo.”

What is important to note about allusions is that if the reader or audience does not have a firm grasp of historical references and popular culture, an allusion may simply seem like nothing more than words. So, if Swift’s audience were unaware of the Hawthorne reference, they would miss her intention altogether.

The Importance and Function of Allusion

Writers specifically and strategically place allusions to be intentional and purposeful and to affect the overall meaning of their work.

Writers utilize allusions to communicate a particular mood or emotion that would impact the reader or audience.

More specifically, Dr. King’s example from above invoked Lincoln for several reasons.

First, he was standing on the footsteps of the Lincoln Memorial and wanted to take advantage of that location.

Second, Lincoln freed slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation. However, Dr. King wants to emphasize that 100 years later inequality still existed in America. King’s allusion to Lincoln begs the question: If African-Americans were freed 100 years prior, why were they still neglected equal civil rights?

Dr. King purposefully and intentionally alluded to Lincoln at the start of his speech. Similarly, a writer should use an allusion to impact the overall purpose of his work.

Examples of Allusion in Literature

Define Allusions in Literature: Allusions can reference virtually anything. However, the most popular literary allusions are to Greek mythology or Biblical stories.

The following lines are an excerpt from Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis:

Is thine own heart to thine own face affected?
Can thy right hand seize love upon thy left?
Then woo thyself, be of thyself rejected,
Steal thine own freedom, and complain on theft.
Narcissus so himself himself forsook
And died to kiss his shadow in the brook.

Here, the speaker references the Greek myth of Narcissus. Shakespeare includes this allusion here to act as a comparison. The speaker models the consequences of one who loves himself too much and alludes to Narcissus to show the harmful effects of such behavior.

Again, Shakespeare methodically and purposefully includes this allusion. The allusion mirrors Shakespeare’s intention in these lines, to prove that self-indulgence may have detrimental consequences.

Summary: What is Allusion?

Define Allusion: The definition of allusion is quite simple: it is the reference in one work to another important work, person, event, etc.

Like other literary devices, it is the reader’s responsibility to recognize and understand allusions, and many of the most famous allusion examples in literature refer to Greek or Biblical stories.

A writer incorporates allusions to impact overall purpose. Similarly, allusions should be used wisely and sparingly. For allusion examples, see above.

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