Having so recently discussed puns in this series, it is appropriate that we turn next to a relatively uncommon word with a very common homonym which causes students endless confusion and professors endless grief. The term allusion sounds precisely like the word illusion, but apart from the striking similarity in sound, these words have nothing in common, and should never, ever be confused in the English classroom, especially on an essay, test, or exam.
In literary circles, an allusion is a textual reference to a specific cultural production or event. Cultural productions refer to any works which human beings create, including art, literature, cinema, philosophy, and myth, while events refer to actual historical figures, circumstances, and happenings. Allusions to other literary works are perhaps the most common and obvious form of allusion in literature, and these allusions efficiently add layers of meaning to a text that could not be conveyed without it.
Allusions range from the highly evident to the remarkably obscure, and scholars have debated using different terms to describe the various degrees of allusive explicitness. On the most evident side of the continuum we have quotation, where an author directly quotes another's work within his or her own, with or without quotation marks. This type of allusion is intentional and obvious to anyone familiar with the work being quoted. On the opposite end of the continuum is the echo, where nothing is directly quoted, but the same mood, style, subject matter, or method of presentation reminds us strongly of a previous work. Echo is often unintentional, and while the author might have read the previous work to which the allusion is being made, this is not necessary; the allusion in this case is determined by the reader, rather than the author. Some argue that allusion properly defined rests somewhere between these two extremes, and that neither of these is actually itself allusion! However, for our purposes it is most useful to see allusion as a broad category containing many subtle shades of difference which all contribute to a basic general effect.
When an allusion appears in a literary work, it operates in a way similar to a metaphor, but on a much more general level. We are reading one work, and therein we are reminded of another. As a result, we have an immediate and automatic comparison to make between the current work and the one it is alluding to. How are these situations similar? How are the works similar as a whole? Is the style of this work reflective of the previous, and if so, why has this been done? The allusion forces us to lay the contents of one work over the contents of another, encouraging us to examine the points of similarity and difference we encounter.
Note that the use of allusion is at times, if you will pardon my weak pun, elusive. Sometimes authors attempt to make their allusions obvious, and sometimes they make them remarkably subtle, but in either case, the effectiveness of the allusion relies on the reader's picking up on the reference made. T.S. Eliot's famous poem The Waste Land uses hundreds if not thousands of allusions, ranging from the blatantly overt to the closely concealed, and almost no reader will be able to pick up on all of them without being shown where they are. The role of the reader and his or her background is paramount in this case, because although the poem can be read and enjoyed without getting many of the references, it takes on greater and greater significance with every allusion you identify. A simple line can turn from being a straightforward and relatively uninteresting phrase to a pivotal moment which displays the strongest theme of the poem. Allusion allows authors to bring to mind the whole host of associations, meanings, and emotions of a previous work by means of a quick line or phrase, making it a remarkably efficient and effective tool. Allusion can lead to losing some readers, but the risk is most often outweighed by the rewards.