Allusion is an author's reference to another literary work, a cultural event, or an experience in the author's life.
“An allusion is a brief reference to a person, place, or event, historical or actual, that readers are expected to recognize” (Kirszner 813). Authors assume that they and the reader share a common body of knowledge (Kirszner 813). Allusions can come from any source, from historical literary texts such as ancient texts and scriptures to more personal elements of the author’s life (Kirszner 814). Allusion causes the reader to think back to a previous story, or a certain situation, and recall a key point, theme, or significance. Authors use allusions to borrow authority, emotion or reputation for their work. An author who references Shakespeare, is utilizing Shakespeare’s established reputation to give credence to their work. If an author needs to portray betrayal in a literary work, they can do this quite economically with a reference to Caesar and Brutus.
Biblical and Scriptural allusions are often seen in epic poetry; these allusions lend a very authoritative and historical significance to the work, even if the work is contemporary (Meyer 536). When a reader’s memory has then been triggered by something the author has written previously, for example, an earlier chapter or a previous book, one may apply the significance of the current situation or key point to that which it is being compared.
Harmon references to the movie King Kong: “The beauty killed the beast.” Allusions can play as a summarization of an idea, which is why this statement on the movie King Kong is considered an allusion.
- Frye, Northrop, et al. The Harper Handbook to Literature. 2nd ed. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc. 1997.
- Harmon, William and C. Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall 1996.
- Kirszner, Laurie G and Stephen G. Mandel. Literature Reading, Reacting Writing. Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1994.
- Meyer, Michael. The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1990.