The most skilled writers know how to artfully pack several layers of meaning into just a few sentences or paragraphs. One device that helps them achieve this is allusion, or an indirect reference to other people, places, or things from art, myths, or history.

You might think of allusions as subtle nods or inside jokes that writers use to add depth to their writing, while drawing connections to other stories, individuals, or events. By learning to recognize these references, you can enjoy a much deeper understanding of many of your favorite works.

What Is a Literary Allusion?

An allusion is a brief, indirect reference that is made to a person, place, thing, or idea of historical, cultural. literary, or political importance.

When such a reference is made in literature, it’s like a little shout-out to these other figures or events from popular culture, and they’re never thrown in by accident.

Why Is Allusion Used?

Allusions function a lot like symbolism; they allow writers to express complex ideas and emotions in a simplified way by drawing comparisons.

Because of this, allusions can play a big role in developing themes and motifs, or the bigger idea behind a story. Or, sometimes, they simply help to develop imagery and vivid descriptions.

Allusion Examples from Literature

To better understand how allusions work, let’s take a look at a few examples from literature and examine how they add deeper meaning to their respective stories.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

“The two knitting women increase his anxiety by gazing at him and all
the other sailors with knowing unconcern. Their eerie looks suggest
that they know what will happen (the men dying), yet don’t care.”

These two knitting women “guarding the door of Darkness” appear just briefly, but they are an allusion to the Fates from Greek mythology, who spin, measure, and cut the thread of life.

Behind the doors they guard, the office of the Company is determining Marlow’s fate. The fact that these two women are knitting black wool foreshadows Marlow’s horrific journey to come on the “Dark Continent.”

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

See what a grade was seated on this brow,
Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself,
An eye like Mars’ to threaten and command . . . 

Here, Shakespeare alludes to three Greek gods to give readers an idea of what Hamlet’s late father looked like. Hyperion had a head of curls, Jove a prominent forehead, and Mars was the god of war.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

In the classic tale of Moby Dick, the 19th-century whaling ship is named Pequod. Back when this was published, the general public would have been familiar with the Native American tribe called the Pequod, which was almost driven to the extinction during the Pequot War of 1636–1637.

Naming a ship after a tribe that was almost completely eradicated foreshadows the fate of the ship, which is destroyed by the whale, killing everyone except for the narrator.

How Do You Use Allusion in a Sentence?

Below are several examples of how you can use allusion (a noun) in a sentence. Note that “allude” is the verb form, meaning “to make an allusion.”

  • The author makes several allusions to stories from the New Testament.
  • The story is full of allusions to prominent figures from the Renaissance era.
  • His frequent allusions to classic films make the course easier to understand.
  • Here, the author alludes to Greek mythology.
  • By alluding to the Bible, he makes clear his own values.

Symbolism in Literature

Both symbols and allusions can give double meanings to a work of literature, while also forcing readers to think about a text on a deeper level.

Being familiar with some of the most common symbols in literature will help you to pick up on allusions and better understand the deeper themes behind a work.

Do you have a favorite example of a literary allusion? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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