"What is an Allusion?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

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What is an Allusion? Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in Video, Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By Sam Schwartz, Oregon State University Senior Instructor of Literature

25 May 2021

Many of the most iconic and memorable passages in literature achieve their currency through the use of Allusion. Consider, for example, passages from the opening of two American novels published 100 years apart. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, published in 1851, opens with perhaps the most recognizable sentence in all of American literature: “Call me Ishmael.”  Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, published in 1950, also partakes of allusion when its narrator and main character introduces himself: “I am an invisible man. No, I am not […] like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms.”

The use of allusion by these authors exemplifies both what an allusion is and why it is used.  Allusions are generally regarded as brief but purposeful references, within a literary text, to a person, place, event, or to another work of literature. Allusion is distinguished from other forms of reference—the many ways that works of literature can call out to other works of art—by its brevity and often by its indirection, though just how indirect an allusion is can vary by a wide degree. An allusion is not a deep meditation, but a passing signal that can sometimes escape notice if you’re not reading carefully. However, allusions are an essential tool for literary artists that often serve to situate their own works within the wider culture and the contexts of literary history.

So, how does this work? What do allusions achieve and why do authors use them?  Let’s refer back to our examples. When the narrator of Moby Dick introduces himself to the reader, he refers to himself as Ishmael perhaps as a way to make himself more anonymous, and indeed, the reader would not necessarily need to pause and ask the question, “What is the significance of the narrator naming himself ‘Ishmael’?” However, a careful reader would indeed be rewarded by her curiosity. Ishmael is a Biblical name from the book of Genesis—he’s the oldest son of Abraham and brother of the more well-known Isaac. For our purposes, Ishmael is known for being an outcast from a great family; according to an angel who protects Ishmael’s mother Hagar, he is to be “a wild man” whose “hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him.”

This allusion to the Biblical Ishmael achieves two goals, then. Without having to do much work at all—we’re only three words into the novel itself, we already learn a lot about Ishmael: that he is at odds with the world and with those around him; to keep from “methodically knocking people’s hats off,” he seeks the solitude that only an ocean voyage can provide. But the allusion also accomplishes a broader goal: it establishes the solemn but also ambitious tone that this novel conjures: while Ishmael shoves off with Captain Ahab on the Pequod from the shores of Nantucket, this is also the world of Noah and his ark, of Jonah and the whale, and Biblical reference serves to expand the novel’s presence beyond the 19th century, onto a plane with the most consequential and ancient human stories.

In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, allusion is used again, this time more directly but just as quickly, as an act of self-definition by the novel’s narrator. Though invisible, he is not a specter from Edgar Allen Poe. Though he’s defining himself in the negative—by describing who he is by what he is not—his associations are telling: they predict the assumptions and associations of his readers, who likely know Poe’s work, thus creating an immediate relationship based on shared knowledge and reference. This narrator might not want to be associated with such dark figures as Poe’s Roderick Usher or William Wilson, but his protests only go so far. It’s difficult not to associate him with these characters from the American gothic tradition when we find him hunkered down in a basement, eerily lit but hundreds of lightbulbs, where he lives “not only visible, but formless.” So, while this reference to Poe in the opening lines of Invisible Man is lightning quick, the allusion performs a lot of heavy lifting.

To a student of literature, then, the research sometimes required to fully understand allusions, especially when they’re identified in older texts, is like exploring the subtle but potentially dense backdrops of an intricate painting, without which the foregrounded material would not be as rich and impactful. Allusions draw connections between text and reader by harnessing them into the space where context resides. Allusions are the tendrils of a text that expand its field of association, but that also serve to intensify the intellectual and aesthetic possibilities of a given moment.

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Schwartz, Samuel. "What is an Allusion?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 25 May 2021, Oregon State University, liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-allusion. Accessed [insert date].

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