What Is an Allusion?

Definition & Examples of Allusions

Stack of vintage books representing literary allusions.

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An allusion is a literary device that provides greater context to the work at hand by referencing a previous work of art, a person, a place, an event, or a situation—usually of some social, political, or historical significance. The writer usually counts on the reader to catch the allusion, understand its importance, and apply that context to the writing at hand.

Learn more about allusions and how they're used in literature.

What Are Allusions?

Allusions are references designed to call something to mind—comparisons to help writers get their points across to readers. They function as a type of literary shorthand, drawing on popular outside works to provide greater context or meaning to the situation being written about.

Allusions can point to other literary works, films, pieces of art, mythology, folklore, historical facts, events, and more. The writer usually needs to know their audience well enough to understand which references they will likely understand and which ones they likely won't.

In English-language literature, common sources of allusions include the Bible, Greek mythology, and Shakespeare's plays. These works have been popular with English-language readers for centuries, so many readers will catch these allusions.

How Allusions Work

Writers may be hard-pressed to come up with a descriptive way of getting across a point in a story. This is where allusions can be helpful.

For example, imagine you're writing a story and you need to explain your main character's struggle against an overwhelming opponent. You want to get across the idea that the character is righteous and stands a chance of winning the battle, even though that chance appears to be a remote one. 

In this case, you could easily and quickly convey this scenario to your readers with a reference to "David and Goliath," a biblical story of unlikely triumph. Readers have likely encountered this allusion before, and they may have read the original David and Goliath story in the Bible, as well. By just mentioning those two names, many readers will instantly recognize that you're describing a one-sided fight in which the underdog has a minute chance of overcoming the unlikely odds.

Shakespeare's influence on literature in English is so strong that allusions to his plays are often made without people being aware of it. English literature has alluded to his works for hundreds of years, so even if a reader isn't directly familiar with his plays, they will likely understand what a "Romeo" character is, and they'll understand the stakes when a character asks, "to be or not to be?"

While allusions can be an economical way of communicating with readers, they risk alienating those who do not recognize the references. Sometimes allusions can be hard to understand, and these types should be used sparingly.

However, it may be fitting—especially if your work is a period piece—to use a less-than-obvious allusion. One example comes from the 19th century writer Herman Melville. In "Moby Dick," Melville creates a sense of impending doom by naming the main ship in the book the "Pequod." Readers of Melville's classic may be aware of the Pequot people, a Native American tribe that suffered severe losses in a war with English colonizers in the 17th century. The ship's name served to create a feeling of imminent destruction through ​the use of this allusion. 

Similarly, if you hear someone say, "that guy looks like a regular Adonis," this is an allusion to Greek mythology. Adonis was the mortal lover to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of beauty. While the word is ancient, the reference (or allusion) has endured as a shorthand for a handsome man.

Another example is the phrase, "I feel like I am carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders." This is another allusion to Greek mythology. This time, the allusion refers to Atlas, a son of Titans who led a failed battle against the Olympian gods and, as punishment, was condemned to eternally hold up the heavens above the world. In art, Atlas was often portrayed as a man who holds a celestial sphere on his shoulders, which provides a fitting metaphor for characters who carry heavy burdens.

Strong works of fiction and poetry will use allusions so that they work on both levels. Readers who understand the allusions gain a richer understanding of the work, while those who don't can still follow the story and be entertained or enlightened by it.

Key Takeaways

  • Allusions are subtle references in works of literature that are meant to call something to mind.
  • Allusions can refer to other pieces of art or literature, people, places, events, circumstances, and more.
  • Writers can use allusions to demonstrate points or provide extra context for their stories and characters.
  • Strong allusions shouldn't hinder a reader's understanding of the work if they don't get the reference—they enhance the piece for readers who understand the allusion without alienating those who don't.