What Is Allusion in Writing? Learn About Allusion in Writing With Examples

What is an Allusion?

An allusion is an indirect reference to a person, place or event. It is meant to remind the reader of something without actually mentioning it explicitly.

In writing, an allusion is a figure of speech that draws connections to an earlier work of art – an earlier piece of writing, a myth, music, or even a painting or sculpture. An allusion leaves the task of connecting the two works to the reader, unlike a reference, in which the writer might elaborate on the connection. Allusions work best when they seem to fit naturally into the text, instead of being forced in and announcing themselves to the reader.

Types of Allusions

The three types of allusion are:

1. Literary - referring to a past piece of literary work, like a classic novel, mythology or the Bible

2. Historical - referring to a well-known event in history

3. Cultural - referring to an event that was of great significance culturally

Purpose of Allusions

Allusions can be used in a similar way as symbolism, allowing complex ideas to be written about in a more simple way by comparing things to one another.

Note

Allusions can be used to develop the theme of a story, create more vivid descriptions, contextualize characters, or explain mysterious plot points.

Examples of Allusions

1. Describing a character as being "honest like Abe Lincoln"

This allusion is used to emphasize the character's honesty by comparing him to a historical figure known for his honesty.

2. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.

This poem by Robert Frost alludes to the Biblical Garden of Eden.

3. 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 is alluding to three Greek gods to help paint an image of what Hamlet's father had looked like. Hyperion had curly hair, Jove had a large forehead, and Mars was the god of war.

4. "All Overgrown by Cunning Moss" by Emily Dickinson

All overgrown by cunning moss,

All interspersed with weed,

The little cage of "Currer Bell"

In quiet "Haworth" laid.

In this poem, American poet Emily Dickinson alludes to Currer Bell, which was the pen name for English author Charlotte Brontë. Brontë is most well-known for her novel ​Jane Eyre​. Dickinson also alludes to the English village of Haworth, where Brontë died and was later buried.

5. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee

"Are we poor, Atticus?"

Atticus nodded. "We are indeed."

Jem's nose wrinkled. "Are we as poor as the Cunninghams?"

"Not exactly. The Cunninghams are country folks, farmers, and the crash hit them hardest."

This quote from Harper Lee's well-known novel ​To Kill a Mockingbird​ alludes to the "crash," – the Stock Market Crash of 1929, which resulted in the Great Depression.

Famous Allusions

  • Achilles’ heel – a weakness a person may have. Achilles was invulnerable, except for his heel (achilles tendon)
  • Apollo – a physically perfect male
  • Cinderella – one who gains affluence or recognition after being treated poorly
  • Don Juan – a libertine, profligate, a man obsessed with women
  • Don Quixote – someone overly idealistic to the point of being unrealistic
  • Absolom – a son who brings heartache to his father
  • Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end, from a quote in Revelations
  • Daniel – one known for wisdom and accurate judgment