What is allusion?
Allusion? There’s nothing too special or difficult about using allusion. We use it every day.
“Remember when Great-Aunt Maisie lost her false teeth on the bus?” No more needs to be said. Everyone roars with laughter whether they remember the event first hand or whether they learned of it later.
“That beautiful bridesmaid’s dress never worn. What a waste.” A quiet moment there as everyone nods and sighs.
“How could you ever forget Uncle Bert and his pickled cheese sandwiches?” More smiles and a pungent sense memory from the smell of pickles and cheese.
Allusion, as a figure of speech, is a rapid reference to a person, place, thing, an event or even a concept. It’s the fast trigger to a shared memory. It invites the listener, or reader, into the mind of the speaker, hints at complicity; it’s a behind-the-hand comment rather like a Twitter hash tag.
Allusions in Literature
In literature, allusions may be Biblical, mythical, intertextual, referring to a person or happening in another book by the same or a different author. As in life, characters strengthen their hold on readers by calling on a set of shared cultural experiences.
Hugh Fox, one of the founders of the Pushcart Prize and author of In The Beginning, a MuseItUp Publishing novel, writes novels rich in allusion. A poet, he calls on his academic background, love of languages, interest in religious philosophies, memories of European capitals, music, food. He invites readers to participate in his characters’ lives through allusion—the constant hinting at what they and we may all have in common.
Examples of Allusion
Almost as the novel starts, Eve, the main character, is leaving the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
“For a moment she concentrated on one heavyset man in front of her, some butcher, baker, or candlestick maker and wondered how it would be to be married to someone like him, without any subtleties, tricks.” The pleasure in recognizing the Rub-a-dub-dub children’s nursery rhyme helps readers bond with Eve. They have the same childhood memories.
The description of her first husband “Jack, with his white hair and big round benign moon face, his golf clubs and barbecues out in the backyard, old jazz records, his sodas and cornbread, Jack London, and old Frankenstein movies...” alludes to familiar hobbies and pastimes, music, food and drink, books and films. Thirty-three words and we know Jack as surely as if we’d played a round of golf with him or been invited to one of his barbecues.
These allusions are accessible, easy to pick up on, comfortable.
When Richard, Eve’s lost love, talks about his time in Paris, the allusions are more intellectual. They tag him as an academic. “I mean, how many times can you visit the Sumerian gallery at the Louvre?” he says. “You get tired of Tintoretto. Even the Jeu de Paume, and the Musée de l’Homme, the Guimet, l’Orangerie. Even grandchildren.”
Some of these allusions we know. The Louvre? fine. But the Sumerian gallery? Maybe. Some we don’t. The depth of our own knowledge lets us add an overlay of our own experience to the story, the characters. Richard likes museums, and paintings by Tintoretto. The reader gets the gist and can follow up references if interested. The mention of grandchildren grounds him firmly back in a reality everyone understands and shares.
His allusions may not be totally accessible but they’re not inaccessible. We all know someone who, from time to time, talks over our head. This is his character. He is a professor after all. The grandchildren, on the other hand give him another dimension as a people person.
The very title of the novel is a Biblical allusion. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” starts the Book of Genesis. And the echo in John 1.1 “In the beginning was the Word...” calls to everyone who loves reading and writing.
To be an allusion, the figure of speech must be implanted deliberately by the author. The reader's knowledge adds overlays of meaning.
Allusive Book Titles
Have a look at the MuseItUp novels and you’ll see just how many have allusive titles.
Take Heather Haven’s A Wedding to Die For. I hear the allusion as everyday speech pattern, the way we colloquially talk about a fashion item as being 'to die for.' So I'm expecting humour and a light touch in the writing. A fun read. Other memories may reference the novel or the film.
Terri Main’s Dark Side of the Moon connects me instantly to the Pink Floyd album rather than the lunar hemisphere,
Pat Dale’s Sleeping With Her Enemy brings to mind Julia Roberts.
Has your book a title rich in allusion? Can you suggest more MuseItUp novels which use allusion in their titles and share what memories they call up for you?
Power of Allusion Part 2 coming in three hours:
Allusion—why you need it, where you may need it and how to research it
Annie (Anne Duguid)