Allusion vs. Illusion | Examples

Bethany Calderwood, Christopher Curley
  • Author
    Bethany Calderwood

    Bethany is a certified Special Education and Elementary teacher with 11 years experience teaching Special Education from grades PK through 5. She has a Bachelor's degree in Special Education, Elementary Education, and English from Gordon College and a Master's degree in Special Education from Salem State University.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Curley

    Christopher Curley holds a B.A. in English and Philosophy from Ursinus College. He has extensive writing experience, contributing on topics including health, wellness, health research policy, and health science, as well as tutoring experience in English and standardized testing prep.

Compare and contrast allusion vs. illusion and learn how to use them in a sentence. Explore types of allusion in writing, especially in poetry and fiction. Updated: 01/18/2022

Allusion vs Illusion

Literary devices are used by authors to help readers connect with a text and to expand the meaning of a text beyond the simple literal meaning of the words. One common literary device is allusion, which is an indirect but intentional reference to something outside the text. Authors may make allusions to other literary works, historical events, people, or places. Readers who understand the allusions within a given text gain a deeper understanding of the author's intentions.

Students sometimes confuse the concepts of allusion and illusion. What is the difference between allusion and illusion? While allusion is a literary device, the word illusion refers to a sensory experience. Illusion refers to something that appears to be different from reality. Common illusion types are visual and auditory. An easy way to remember the definition of allusion vs. illusion is this: the initial 'i' in illusion is reminiscent of the word 'eye,' and illusions can be tricks played on the eyes.

Allusion and Illusion: Definitions and Examples

Illusion and allusion; they're not actually closely related to each other, but they sound so similar, students often mix the two up. Allusion (note the soft 'a') is a literary term, while an illusion is something that a literary character might experience. Let's take a look at the two.

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Illusion Examples

An illusion occurs when a person's senses receive a false impression of stimuli. Illusion examples have been recorded for the senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. For example:

  • Auditory illusions include the tendency of the ears to interpret sound levels in relation to other sounds rather than to actual volume. Music at the exact same volume will appear louder in an empty room than in a noisy crowd. Another auditory illusion involves misunderstanding the direction of a sound source.
  • Olfactory illusions are related to smell. These illusions can be the result of sensory fatigue. For example, an odor remains constant but a person's nose ceases to respond to the odor so the person thinks the smell has faded.
  • Visual illusions can be related to how the eyes interpret lines and other input. Some are caused by light refraction or other atmospheric conditions. One example is a mirage, which is an image of a pool of water caused by light passing through layers of heated air near a surface such as a road. Three-dimensional movies are another example of visual illusion. Visual and perceptual illusions are often used in puzzles.

In the image below, the arrangement of the rectangles creates an illusion of movement even though in reality no part of the image is moving.


Illusion examples include visual illusions like this one where the picture has the appearance of movement even though it is still.

Illusion examples include visual illusions like this one where the picture has the appearance of motion.


This picture is an optical illusion.

Illusion in a Sentence

The following examples use "illusion" in a sentence:

  • The magician's act relied on illusion and sleight of hand.
  • The illusions in the haunted house were so realistic that the teenagers were terrified.
  • The show relied on clever sound effects to produce the illusion of a night on the prairie.
  • Did you see that shape in the distance, or was it just an illusion?

These are just a few possible illusion examples.

Types of Allusions

While illusions involve sensory perception, allusion in writing relies on intangible connections. Allusions are not visual representations; rather, an author refers to a person, place, event, or work. The reader must then notice the allusion and correctly identify it in order to fully understand the text. It is possible for readers to miss allusions in texts, but an understanding of allusions will make the reading experience richer.

Three characteristics of allusion make it appeal to authors and readers:

  • Allusion is an indirect reference to an outside source, so it has the benefit of being subtle. As a literary device, allusion adds layers to a text without cumbersome explanation. This feature can be particularly appealing for writers of poetry, which is often focused on the sound and shape of language.
  • Allusion appeals to a sense of cultural consciousness. Allusion relies on a common body of knowledge that is shared between an author and their intended audience. The fact that readers recognize and relate to an allusion can make a text more appealing and memorable.
  • Allusion is a type of shorthand, adding brevity to a text. Shorthand makes a lengthy message more concise, which is important in poetry, short stories, and songs.

Illusion

When your senses deceive you, you've got an illusion, which is a false representation of something - literally seeing (or hearing, tasting, touching, smelling) something that isn't there. 3-D movies are a kind of illusion, in that they give a picture the appearance of depth (three dimensions) when the reality is that the image is flat. A mirage, like the classic example of thinking you see water in the desert, is also a kind of illusion, as is this famous eye teaser.

The exercise above works because we see with our brain rather than with our eyes. Our eyes only receive an image while our brain is responsible for interpreting that image. By objective measure - time to break out your ruler - these two middle circles are equal in size, but the circles that surround them trick the brain into giving them the appearance of difference sizes; that is, the illusion of inequality.

Allusion

An allusion, on the other hand, isn't a trick at all, but rather an indirect or glancing reference to another work, person, place or event. If it helps, remember that illusion usually revolves around an image ('I' for illusion), while allusions can refer to almost anything. Aside from sounding alike, the two don't mean similar things at all! For example, if I say, 'This professor is colder than Darth Vader,' I'm alluding to a character from the Star Wars movies. Likewise, if I say 'When it comes to winning that scholarship, David is as relentless as Ahab,' I'm alluding to Captain Ahab, the protagonist in Herman Melville's Moby Dick, and using that allusion to draw a comparison between Ahab's complete devotion to capturing the whale in the novel and David's pursuit of success in real life.

Allusions are sometimes easy to miss in a text because they require you, the reader, to know and understand the thing being referenced. If you didn't know who Ahab was, for instance, that allusion would fly right over your head, and thus you'd miss a critical comparison the writer was making about David's character. On the other hand, allusions are useful for writers because they're a kind of shorthand that allow them to make quick, indirect references to something larger that's part of the cultural consciousness, without having to go into an in-depth explanation of how the thing being alluded to is like the writer's subject.

Moreover, when an allusion clicks with a reader - that could be you, or your audience if you're the one writing the allusion - it creates a little tingle of pleasure as the reader recognizes the reference and connects it back to the passage. Human brains love making connections; they're quite literally built for it. When you use an allusion successfully, your writing is stronger as a result.

Allusion in Poetry

Let's look at a couple of examples of allusion in poetry. Check out this excerpt from the poem, 'Land of the Discount Price, Home of the Brand Name,' by Harryette Mullen.

I've clipped a terrific recipe

from Sunday's paper. A Betsy Ross

rectangular cake covered with

strawberries, blueberries, and Cool Whip,

with a coupon for the Cool Whip.

Do you know what a 'Betsy Ross rectangular cake' is? Well, if you understood the allusion - that Betsy Ross was the creator of the first American flag - Mullen's meaning would be clear. This is further reinforced when you see that strawberries, Cool Whip, and blueberries are the colors of the flag: red, white, and blue. So, we've got a flag cake.

Here's another, perhaps more difficult example, from the first few lines of 'Portrait of a Lady,' by William Carlos Williams.

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Video Transcript

Allusion and Illusion: Definitions and Examples

Illusion and allusion; they're not actually closely related to each other, but they sound so similar, students often mix the two up. Allusion (note the soft 'a') is a literary term, while an illusion is something that a literary character might experience. Let's take a look at the two.

Illusion

When your senses deceive you, you've got an illusion, which is a false representation of something - literally seeing (or hearing, tasting, touching, smelling) something that isn't there. 3-D movies are a kind of illusion, in that they give a picture the appearance of depth (three dimensions) when the reality is that the image is flat. A mirage, like the classic example of thinking you see water in the desert, is also a kind of illusion, as is this famous eye teaser.

The exercise above works because we see with our brain rather than with our eyes. Our eyes only receive an image while our brain is responsible for interpreting that image. By objective measure - time to break out your ruler - these two middle circles are equal in size, but the circles that surround them trick the brain into giving them the appearance of difference sizes; that is, the illusion of inequality.

Allusion

An allusion, on the other hand, isn't a trick at all, but rather an indirect or glancing reference to another work, person, place or event. If it helps, remember that illusion usually revolves around an image ('I' for illusion), while allusions can refer to almost anything. Aside from sounding alike, the two don't mean similar things at all! For example, if I say, 'This professor is colder than Darth Vader,' I'm alluding to a character from the Star Wars movies. Likewise, if I say 'When it comes to winning that scholarship, David is as relentless as Ahab,' I'm alluding to Captain Ahab, the protagonist in Herman Melville's Moby Dick, and using that allusion to draw a comparison between Ahab's complete devotion to capturing the whale in the novel and David's pursuit of success in real life.

Allusions are sometimes easy to miss in a text because they require you, the reader, to know and understand the thing being referenced. If you didn't know who Ahab was, for instance, that allusion would fly right over your head, and thus you'd miss a critical comparison the writer was making about David's character. On the other hand, allusions are useful for writers because they're a kind of shorthand that allow them to make quick, indirect references to something larger that's part of the cultural consciousness, without having to go into an in-depth explanation of how the thing being alluded to is like the writer's subject.

Moreover, when an allusion clicks with a reader - that could be you, or your audience if you're the one writing the allusion - it creates a little tingle of pleasure as the reader recognizes the reference and connects it back to the passage. Human brains love making connections; they're quite literally built for it. When you use an allusion successfully, your writing is stronger as a result.

Allusion in Poetry

Let's look at a couple of examples of allusion in poetry. Check out this excerpt from the poem, 'Land of the Discount Price, Home of the Brand Name,' by Harryette Mullen.

I've clipped a terrific recipe

from Sunday's paper. A Betsy Ross

rectangular cake covered with

strawberries, blueberries, and Cool Whip,

with a coupon for the Cool Whip.

Do you know what a 'Betsy Ross rectangular cake' is? Well, if you understood the allusion - that Betsy Ross was the creator of the first American flag - Mullen's meaning would be clear. This is further reinforced when you see that strawberries, Cool Whip, and blueberries are the colors of the flag: red, white, and blue. So, we've got a flag cake.

Here's another, perhaps more difficult example, from the first few lines of 'Portrait of a Lady,' by William Carlos Williams.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How can illusion and allusion be used in a sentence?

An allusion is a literary device while an illusion is a sensory trick.

  • The painting creates the optical illusion of a spiral that goes both up and down.
  • The author made an allusion to "Little Women" in chapter two.

What is a mnemonic device to remember the difference between allusion and illusion?

To distinguish between allusion and illusion, a helpful mnemonic device is that "i" for illusion is similar to "eye." This is relevant because some common types of illusions trick the eyes.

What are the three types of illusions?

An illusion is a false sensory perception. Three common types of illusions are:

  • Visual or optical illusions, such as mirages, where the eyes perceive something that is not an actual fact.
  • Auditory illusions, such as when a sound at a constant volume sounds louder in an empty room than in a full room.
  • Olfactory illusions, which impact the sense of smell.

What is as example of an allusion in literature?

One example of an allusion in literature is the title of William Faulkner's novel "Absalom, Absalom," which is an allusion to the son of King David in the Bible. The turbulent family relationships in the novel have some similarities to the relationship between Absalom and his family.

What is an example of a visual illusion?

One example of visual illusion is a mirage, where the refraction of light through heated layers of air near a surface, like a road or packed sand. This creates the appearance of water where there is no water present.

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