Allusion in Literature - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Allusions Defined
  • 1:20 Examples of Allusions
  • 2:45 Non-Literary Allusions
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Sometimes it's easier for a writer to explain an idea by making a reference to a famous story, person, event, or object. This reference is called an allusion, and in this lesson, you will learn what an allusion is and read several examples from literature.

Allusions Defined

An allusion is a figure of speech that refers to a well-known story, event, person, or object in order to make a comparison in the readers' minds. For instance, imagine a writer needs to explain her main character's struggle against an overwhelmingly powerful opponent. She wants to get across the idea that her character is righteous and stands a chance of winning the battle, even though that chance appears to be a remote one. She might refer to the confrontation as 'a meeting of David and Goliath.' The writer alludes to a well-known biblical story, the one of David and Goliath, to bring to readers' minds the idea that the confrontation will look like a one-sided battle but that the underdog stands a chance of triumph.

Some allusions are as obvious as the previous example, while others are more obscure. Because the story, event, person, or object being used in the allusion can carry a wide variety of connotations, allusions sometimes bring a wealth of information and attitudes with them. For instance, in the David versus Goliath example, not only does this allusion refer to an event in which one person has a clear advantage, but it also carries the idea that the person who deserves to win, and who will probably win, is the one with very little power.

Examples of Allusions

Sometimes allusion is easy to spot. A reference like 'That guy is a regular Adonis!' draws upon a mythical figure of beauty to make a comparison in an obvious way. But not all allusions are as easy to recognize. For instance, let's look at this line: 'My father carries the weight of the world.' This is an allusion to Atlas, a figure who held up the Earth in Greek mythology. Rather than refer to Atlas by name, this allusion calls up an image of Atlas by mentioning his most commonly recognized trait - the fact that he holds up the planet, and it carries connotations of enduring strength and nobility.

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville creates a sense of impending doom when he names the main ship the Pequod. Readers in Melville's time period would have been more familiar with the Pequot people, a Native American tribe who were driven to extinction. The ship's name then creates a feeling of imminent destruction through the use of this allusion.

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