What Is Allusion?
(View all literary devices)
An allusion is an indirect reference to something everyone is presumed to know. In classic literary works, many allusions come from the Bible or Greek and Roman mythology, but an allusion can be a reference (sometimes called “a nod”) to any person or event that was popular enough in its time to be remembered. Watergate, the hotel President Nixon had wiretapped in order to hear private conversations, has become a popular and sometimes satirized allusion for any scandal. “Nipplegate,” for instance, refers to when Justin Timberlake inadvertently exposed Janet Jackson’s nipple during the 2004 halftime show of the Superbowl.
Allusions are everywhere; popular culture is full of them. Matt Groening’s show, The Simpsons, contains numerous allusions, including ones to classic horror films, Shakespeare plays, and Star Wars.
How Do You Identify Allusion in Writing?
Even though knowing the original story behind an allusion can help to deepen your understanding of a work, it can be difficult to catch allusions if you don’t have a wide knowledge of the sources. Footnotes in most anthologies and some editions of literary works will point out the significance of the allusion for readers.
Examples of Allusion
1. My sister is a real Scrooge when it comes to gift giving. The reference is to Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
2. This place is a veritable Garden of Eden.
3. “The phoenix from the fire, hell mouth leviathan/I only get killed at the end of time so I’m buying some.” — Jean Grae’s rap lyrics contain three different Biblical allusions.
4. The expression “Beam me up, Scotty” is an allusion to the original Star Trek series.
5. “Pulling a Tom Sawyer” is an allusion to the scene from Mark Twain’s novel in which Tom gets other boys to pay him to whitewash a fence by pretending he is having the time of his life.