What is Allusion? - With Examples

When you understand allusion, you’ll smile like the Cheshire Cat.

What is Allusion?

When you write, you can make references to other things your readers may be familiar with, such as people, historical events, books, paintings, or music. Each reference you make is an allusion!

“Allusion” comes from the Latin word allusio, which means “play” or “sport.” And allusio, in turn, comes from the Latin alludere, meaning “to play,” “to joke,” and “to frolic,” in addition to “to refer to.” While not all allusions are playful or funny, they are still a way of playing with words.

When you make an allusion, you assume your reader will understand what you’re talking about. Without the cultural knowledge shared by both writer and reader, the point of an allusion is lost, and your writing might not make sense.

Writing can allude to just about any source material, including another part of the same text. The important thing is that an allusion makes an implied comparison, not a direct. A direct comparison is an analogy, which is a different (but related) figure of speech.

allusion example

Why Is Allusion Important? 

Using allusions in your writing is important because they enrich your text. And understanding how allusions work will help you better appreciate other people’s writing.

Generally speaking, allusion gives context, which helps your reader create a fuller picture of what you’re describing. In just a few words, you can create an atmosphere or invoke an emotional reaction. It’s a quick way to enhance your text with just a few words, by referencing what the reader already knows.

Also, allusion helps create a sense of shared understanding between the author and the reader, allowing the reader to feel more connected to the text.

Writing Good Allusions

Since allusions are implied, as the writer you have control over how obvious they are. And the most important aspect of writing good allusions is to make sure your readers make the connection you’re describing. If they don’t pick up on the allusion, they’re losing a lot of the meaning of your text.

Some allusions are obvious, while others are more obscure. For example, if you’re referencing Shakespeare, an allusion to Romeo and Juliet involving ill-fated lovers will be more obvious than an allusion to the cave in Timon of Athens.

Literary Allusion Types

In academia, literary allusion is sometimes divided into types. These 6 categories were created by R. F. Thomas, who derived them from Virgil’s Georgics.”

While these are not by any means the only ways in which to make allusions, they can be a useful basis for understanding how allusions work.

  1. Casual reference: This is a specific reference to something within a text, but understanding the allusion isn’t strictly necessary for understanding the rest of the work. So, you can still understand the plot, even if you don’t understand the allusion.
  2. Single reference: With this type of allusion, the reader thinks about the context of one thing and applies it to a different scenario.
  3. Self-reference: This is a reference to something else the author has written.
  4. Corrective allusion: A corrective allusion “corrects,” or disagrees with, the thing it refers to.
  5. Apparent reference: This allusion appears to refer to a specific thing. But when you look closer, the relationship is much more complicated (or nonexistent.)
  6. Multiple references or conflation: This is when an author mixes or combines multiple allusions, and it can help to change cultural norms.

Examples of Allusion

Allusions abound in writing, art, music, and pop culture in the Western world. But there are a few sources that show up more than others: the Bible, Shakespeare, and Classical literature.

Biblical Allusion

The Bible has sold more copies than any other book in the world throughout history! And Bible stories are culturally important in predominantly Judeo-Christian societies. So, authors take advantage of this and incorporate biblical allusions into their writing. Here are some common examples:

  • An apple: A reference to the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve eat in the Garden of Eden. Somewhere that seems like a paradise might also be described as an Eden, referencing this same Genesis story. 
  • Judas:  In the New Testament, Judas betrays Jesus to the Romans. So when you see an allusion to Judas in a text, you associate that character with betrayal. 
  • Solomon: The biblical King Solomon is famous for his wisdom and good decisions in court. 
  • David and Goliath: This references the battle between a young Israelite boy and a giant from the Philistines. David was an “underdog” who ended up killing his opponent.
  • Holy Grail: For millennia, Christians have searched for the mythical cup Jesus drank from at the Last Supper. Now, “Holy Grail” refers to anything that seems like an unattainable goal.

Allusion to Shakespeare

Allusions to Shakespeare pop up all over Western culture. Sometimes it’s direct quotations from his work, and sometimes it’s plots or imagery.

Shakespeare influences everything from books to movies to music, and more. These are a few commonly-referenced plays:

  • Romeo and Juliet: This star-crossed couple shows up frequently, whether in retellings of the story (such as West Side Story) or references, such as Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” or Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet.”
  • Hamlet: People often quote this play, with phrases such as “To be or not to be” or “To sleep, perchance to dream.” As well, when someone talks to a skull, they reference the famous graveyard scene. And retellings of Hamlet include Disney’s Lion King and the TV show Sons of Anarchy.
  • Macbeth: Famous lines from this play include “Out, damned spot” and “Double, double, toil and trouble.” In addition, other authors have used quotations to name their own works, including William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Out, Out by Robert Frost.

Classical Allusions

Another major source for allusions is Classical literature. Stories, myths, and poems from ancient Greece and Rome are a major component of Western culture, and people have been alluding to them for hundreds and thousands of years.

Even Shakespeare alluded to Classical literature in his plays and poems! Here are just a few references you might see:

  • Venus: Venus was the Roman goddess of love, and was known to be very beautiful. Writers often compare characters to her to say how beautiful they are.
  • Achilles’ Heel: Achilles was a Greek fighter who could not be hurt in battle unless you injured the back of his heel. Homer’s Iliad tells of his eventual death when someone hurts him there. So an “Achilles’ heel” is someone’s only weakness. This is similar to allusions to “kryptonite,” or the only thing that can kill Superman.
  • Hercules: The Greek hero Hercules completed some amazing labors that no other human alive could do. So, you might hear someone say “That’s a Herculean task,” meaning that something is really, really hard to do.

Everyday Allusions

You’ll often come across allusions in everyday life without realizing that they’re actually references.

Maybe you have to leave a party early, and you tell your friends, “I’ll turn into a pumpkin if I’m not home on time!” That’s a reference to the story of Cinderella.

And if you have a big crush, you might say “I got hit with one of love’s arrows” referencing the Roman god Cupid. (Or you might just doodle a heart with an arrow through it on your notebook.)

Bringing allusions into your writing makes it richer because you add layers of meaning and cultural associations with just a few extra words. It’s a neat little trick!

So, pay attention when you’re reading, and you might find little treasures hidden in the text!

Also, be sure to check out our other articles for great information on literary devices and grammar rules.