An allusion is an indirect but brief literary means of referencing an object, place, or person. The object of allusion can be real or fictional. It can be a person, quote, event, or some work of artistic significance. It can be used to add emotions or significance to a certain passage by drawing on a reader’s prior association with the object.
It is simply a passing comment and doesn’t describe in detail the person or thing to which it refers. The reader is expected by the writer to possess enough knowledge to spot the allusion and understand its importance in a passage.
For example, you literarily make an allusion by saying, “I don’t approve of such ‘quixotic’ idea.” The term Quixotic means impractical and stupid and is derived from “Don Quixote”, a story by Cervantes which centers on a foolish knight and his misadventures.
Examples of Allusion in Literature
- Dante’s Inferno
“Then turning, I to them my speech address’d,
And thus began: “Francesca! your sad fate
Even to tears my grief and pity moves.
But tell me; in the time of your sweet sighs,
By what, and how Love granted, that ye knew
Your yet uncertain wishes?” She replied:
“No greater grief than to remember days
Of joy, when misery is at hand. That kens
Thy learn’d instructor. Yet so eagerly
If thou art bent to know the primal root,
From whence our love gat being, I will do
As one, who weeps and tells his tale. One day,
For our delight we read of Lancelot,
How him love thrall’d. Alone we were, and no
Suspicion near us. Oft-times by that reading
Our eyes were drawn together, and the hue
Fled from our alter’d cheek. But at one point
Alone we fell. When of that smile we read,
The wished smile so raptorously kiss’d
By one so deep in love, then he, who ne’er
From me shall separate, at once my lips
All trembling kiss’d. The book and writer both
Were love’s purveyors. In its leaves that day
We read no more.”
This is an excerpt from Dante’s Inferno which includes two pertinent allusions that has to be understood by the reader to fully grasp what Dante is saying. Both examples of allusion refer to love stories known in Dante’s day. They refer to the true stories of Lancelot and Francesca the daughter of the Lord of Ravenna who fell in love and committed adultery with Paolo, her husband’s brother. They were both killed for this. In the above text, she told Dante how she and Paolo fell in love over the story of a knight of the round table named Lancelot whose love affair with Guinevere was celebrated.
- Hamlet by Shakespeare
HORATIO: A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets”
This example of allusion is excerpt from Shakespeare’s Hamlet where Horatio refers to Julius Caesar. This is an allusion to historical figure and also an intriguing case of self-reference. The plot of Hamlet makes allusion to Amleth, a historical figure.
Allusion Examples in Everyday Speech
The use of allusion is not narrowed to literature alone, it commonly occurs in our everyday speech as well. For example, “An increase in poverty will unlock a Pandora’s box of criminal activities. – This is an allusion makin reference to “Pandora’s box,” a Greek Mythology.
“Guess who our new Newton is in this school?” – “Newton”, refers to a genius student and alludes to Isaac Newton, a famous scientist.
Alighieri, D. (2010). Dante's Inferno.
Shakespeare, W. (1843). Hamlet.