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Allusion

In a literary context, an allusion is usually a passage in a work of art that makes reference to another work of art or some object within popular culture. The allusion is meant to evoke a specific reaction the audience. For example, the composer Mahler was known for using a relatively "lowbrow" allusion here and there in his symphonies as a means of destabilizing the difference between high culture and low culture.

Defining An Allusion

Allusion is noun and a literary device which briefly and indirectly references a person, place, thing, or idea containing cultural, historical, literary, or political significance to the reader or author. The noun being described is not detailed; an allusion is a quick comment in passing which is interpreted and understood through the assumed extant knowledge of the reader. In literary analysis, allusion is used frequently to connect and compare similar ideas, characters, events, and places.

Allusions are used commonly in everyday speech in order to communicate ideas and opinions to other people. Allusions may refer to well-known people, places, things, or ideas, or they may refer to a person, place, thing, or idea that the person we are trying to communicate with is familiar with. The word Allusion is derived from the Latin allusio and alludere; its first known use was 1612.

Some Examples Of Allusion

Many modern words are allusions to other times, places, or people who either lived in the past, or were created in fiction. For example, “quixotic” means unrealistic and impractical, and is an allusion to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s book  The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, whose main character is insane and believes himself to be a highly-mannered knight providing justice for those who have been wronged throughout his travels. 

Pandora’s box” alludes to the box of ill-meaning spirits that Pandora opened in Greek mythology, and implies that a specific action will result in disaster. Poetry and mythology are both laden with allusions, as is most modern writing, both fictional and non-fictional. Allusions are literary devices with allow the comparison of two different ideas, people, events, or places to occur within the human mind or in a piece of writing or art. Epic poems such as John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” use allusion in order to express an idea without detailed description, and in order to link two ideas together in the reader’s mind.

Authors That Use Allusion

Allusion allows writers, poets, and storytellers to convey complex emotions, thoughts, and ideas in a simple and concise manner by referencing an idea or story that the reader is familiar with. Allusion could be described and background shorthand for a literary piece or work of art. Allusions can be used to draw a reader, listener, or observer into a work of art, story, or even a film by capitalizing on Greek mythology, biblical, or cultural allusions with which that person is familiar. Allusions can also provide a sort of cultural club or genre, outside of which specific portions of text or ideas may not be fully interpretable.

Allusion is not just used to refer to ancient civilizations or ideas. John Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” alludes to a “sylvan” or goat-like man god (possibly Pan) present in Greek mythology, and Joseph Conrad uses allusions and metaphors to foreshadow his apocalyptic trip into the depths of the African continent in Heart of Darkness. There are many famous allusions contained within language and the ways in which people convey meaning to each other, as well. For example, an “Achilles’ heel” is a certain weakness that a person may have, alluding to Achilles’ famous tendon. A “harpy” is a nagging woman, alluding to a creature from Greek and Roman mythology who was a female monster with a woman’s head and body and the wings and claws of a predatory bird. A harpy is thought to contain the most unpleasant aspects of the female personality.

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