In the simplest terms, an allusion is like an inside joke. The word’s etymology comes from the same word as “allude”, both stemming from the Latin word “allusionem” which means “a playing with” or “a reference to”. Though instances may be found in film and visual art, an allusion is a figure of speech for anything written that references anything else, whether it be a person, place, event, any work of art, or myth. Moreover, allusions are generally subtle and implicit, for when they become too obvious they may be instead considered as references. For example, arguably the most condensed instance of allusions in one literary work is found in Jame Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, making the novel almost impossible to be fully appreciated by any one reader. In fact, Joyce has been reported to have claimed he wrote Finnegan’s Wake for himself. Moreover, allusions allow the author to draw from a previously established network of memes in order to enhance their literary work. Furthermore, there are a number of specific types of allusions.
The first type of an allusion is a casual reference. This occurs when a literary work broadly mentions a previous happening. Typically, in small numbers this type of allusion will be ultimately superfluous to a decent understanding of a story’s context, though a knowledge of a casual reference may fill a number of subtle functions, such as elaborating upon an idea using outside assistance or creating a joke between the author and avid reader. For all intense and purposes, a casual reference is merely a detail.
The second type of allusion is known as a single reference. This situation specifically mentions a previous context somehow relevant to the immediate story, an understanding of which providing the reader with additional perspective of what a character may be undergoing or clues as to how events may play out. An introduction of this allusion type provides the author and reader with more commonality the author may then use in articulating himself or making his own perspective more easily understood. A single reference, like a casual reference, is not vital to understanding a story but is generally a bit more helpful than a “casual reference” in terms of creating common ground between the author and reader.
A third type of allusion is the self-reference, or an instance in which an author references something they have written in a previous work. This is a less specific type of allusion; an author may employ a casual self-reference, a single self reference, or any other type of reference, provided he is the source of that reference.
The fourth type of allusion, the corrective allusion, serves a purpose other than merely offering the reader outside information in order to create a stronger understanding of the current text. A corrective allusion draws something from another work but utilizes it in opposition of it’s previous meaning. For example, an author may create an event notably similar to an event found in another famous literary work but make their story reach contradictory conclusions. As such, this type of allusion offers a wide range of uses, from offering a new perspective or to passive aggressively calling another author or work wrong. Interestingly enough, it is possible for an author to use a corrective allusion in a self-reference.
The apparent reference is a fifth type of allusion and occurs when it superficially appears a reference to another work has been made when really this reference is imperfect. However, as all allusions types are intention additions made by the author, this “almost allusion” still serves a function, whether it be to bring to mind a previous situation without wishing to use the current story to comment upon it or some other use relevant to the story. An apparent reference is similar to the allusion types casual and single reference in terms of practical use.
The final type of allusion is the “multiple reference” or “conflation”.
This is perhaps the most involved type of allusion in that the immediate text mentions something which may reference several outside sources at once. This ambiguity provides the reader with an uncertainty over what conclusions to draw about a specific aspect of a story. For example, James Joyce’s short story “Eveline” may be named after one of two things. Firstly, if his short story’s title were an allusion to the poem Thomas Moore composed entitled “Eveline Bower”, Joyce may be hinting that his female protagonist should suffer the same fate as the female in Moore’s poem. However, Joyce might also have referenced a Victorian pornographic novel in which the leading protagonist has sexual relations with her father. In this instance, Joyce’s inclusion of “multiple reference” draws in the realistic ambiguity concerning the history of people other than ourselves, making his short story “Eveline” more believable.
More than simply a way of providing the reader with additional information, an allusion allows authors to create a network of memes through which they may use one another in creating even more elaborate fictitious worlds. As allusions are implicit enough to avoid accusations of plagiarism, they assist in creating an ever growing literary globalization.
Joyce, James. Dubliners. New York: Modern Library, 1993. Print.
Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. New York: Penguin, 1999. Print.