Allusion is, in essence, a riddle-metaphor. And since in literature a lot of the beauty readers derive stems from them unearthing some deeper sense beneath the surface, it is, unsurprisingly, an oft-used literary device. Almost every single author who has ever written anything has alluded numerous times to earlier texts to make his or hers both richer and more esoteric; strangely enough, once identified, allusion also tends to make sentences, passages, and even whole novels a lot more comprehensible. In choosing our examples here, we limited ourselves to books written in the 20th century–and one or two dating from the latter half of the 19th century. Try to guess the allusion before reading the explanation below the quote—it’s a fun game regardless of the result.
10 Examples of Allusion in Literature
Example #1: Cassandra
The censorship continued to suppress Kerillis’s Cassandra-cries against the traitors in the Ministries.
– Arthur Koestler, Scum of the Earth (1941)
In Greek mythology, Apollo was so enchanted with Troy’s princess, Cassandra, that he granted her the gift of prophecy in exchange for a single night with her. Even so, Cassandra refused him once again afterwards. Being a god, Apollo wasn’t able to take his gift back, so he cursed her that nobody would ever believe her accurate prophecies. Ever since then, Cassandra’s name is applied to anyone— regardless of his gender or sex—whose warnings are doubted by everybody, but ultimately turn out to be true. This was the case with Henri de Kérillis mentioned by Arthur Koestler above, a French politician who was a staunch opponent of his government’s appeasement plans with regards to Germany, warning of the perils of such course of action. Nobody believed him—that is, until Hitler’s armies invaded France.
Example #2: Graces
He saw her at the end of that line, Greek, blue-eyed, straight-nosed. How incongruous it seemed to be telephoning a woman like that. The Graces assembling seemed to have joined hands in meadows of asphodel to compose that face.
– Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)
The Graces—or Charites to the Greeks—were the three goddesses of charm, beauty, and elegance in classical mythology. In this passage from Virginia Woolf’s Lighthouse, the widower and eminent botanist Mr. Bankes ruminates over how strange it seems to him to be hearing the voice of his former schoolmate and still-distinguished beauty, Mrs. Ramsey, without seeing her in flesh. Remember: we’re talking about the past century here, so telephones were still a big—not to mention, extraordinary—deal. So, Mr. Bankes tries adding a face to the invisible voice; however, the face he sketches in his mind seems so allusive of a mythological age, that talking to Mrs. Ramsey over the telephone becomes an even more bizarre endeavor.
Example #3: Horatio Alger
I felt like a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger: A man on the move, and just sick enough to be totally confident.
– Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)
These are the last lines of Hunter S. Thompson’s contracultural roman à clef, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a novel aptly subtitled A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. More or less, Horatio Alger Jr. was the writer who basically invented this dream, authoring—during the second half of the 19th century—several books which essentially shared the same storyline: a hardworking poor boy is either rescued from poverty by a wealthy individual or makes it on his own. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson subverts this “rags-to-riches” narrative, with the main protagonist Raoul Dyke concluding his spiritually empty “Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas” experiment with the sarcastic observation above.
Example #4: Dante and Beatrice · Petrarch and Laura
But Will wanted to talk with Dorothea alone, and was impatient of slow circumstance. However slight the terrestrial intercourse between Dante and Beatrice or Petrarch and Laura, time changes the proportion of things, and in later days it is preferable to have fewer sonnets and more conversation.
– George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)
Dante Alighieri, the greatest Italian writer of all times, supposedly met Beatrice Portinari in 1274 when he was merely nine years old—and fell profoundly in love with her almost instantly. Even though he met her only once more since then (exactly nine years after), he was so affected by her purity and beauty that he carried his love for her to the grave. Since Beatrice died at the age of 25, he never got the chance to do anything more than that, but he did make her the main protagonist of his two greatest works, La Vita Nuova and The Divine Comedy. Almost the same is true in the case of Dante’s near-contemporary Petrarch, who fell in love with Laura de Noves at the tender age of 23 and wrote her hundreds of sonnets despite barely even exchanging a word or two with her. In the sentence above, George Eliot gives an ironic twist to this idealized, platonic, unfulfilled vision of romance. The times are changing, she suggests, and in the 19th century, Will Ladislaw would much rather talk with Dorothea Burke in private than adore her publicly in metaphors and verses.
Example #5: Lothario
“She’s all right,” said Corley. “I know the way to get around her, man. She’s a bit gone on me.” “You’re what I call a gay Lothario,” said Lenehan. “And the proper kind of a Lothario, too!”
– James Joyce, “Two Gallants” (1914)
Lothario is a character in “The Impertinent Curious Man,” a long story within a story in Miguel de Cervantes’ masterpiece Don Quixote. He is hired by Anselmo to seduce his wife, Camilla, the fidelity of whom he wants to test for no particular reason. To his dismay, Lothario eventually succeeds—all too well. So, just like Casanova and Don Juan, Lothario is an eponym for a great seducer, a womanizer, a rake. Joyce may be alluding to Nicholas Rowe’s 1703 reimagining of Cervantes’ story in the form of a play, The Fair Penitent, in which Lothario successfully seduces Calista and is described as “haughty, gallant, gay Lothario.”
Example #6: Namby-Pamby
Then a most surprising thing occurred. The captain broke loose upon the dead man like a thunderclap. Oaths rolled from his lips in a continuous stream. And they were not namby-pamby oaths, or mere expressions of indecency. Each word was a blasphemy, and there were many words. They crisped and crackled like electric sparks.
– Jack London, The Sea-Wolf (1904)
Ambrose Philips was an 18th-century English poet and politician; unfortunately for him, he was also a rival of Alexander Pope, meaning he is today almost exclusively remembered for the numerous ways in which he was ridiculed in his day and age. However, the most famous among them—the nickname Namby-Pamby—was actually devised by a friend of Pope, Henry Carey, in his “Panegyric on the New Versification.” In the poem, Carey not only parodies Philips’ nauseatingly maudlin verses but also invents this great name to go with them. Pope and Swift immediately picked it up, and to this day, if something is sentimental and wishy-washy, syrupy and childishly simple, one can describe it as being “namby-pamby”—not even knowing that he/she is alluding to the style of an 18th-century poet once dubbed a worthy successor of Spenser.
Example #7: Nebuchadnezzar · Swaffham Tinker
That night was an eventful one to Eustacia’s brain, and one which she hardly ever forgot. She dreamt a dream; and few human beings, from Nebuchadnezzar to the Swaffham tinker, ever dreamt a more remarkable one.
– Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native (1880)
Nebuchadnezzar was a powerful ruler, the historical king of Babylon between 602 and 562 BC. It was during his reign that Babylon conquered Jerusalem and it was he who exiled the Israelites from their native country. Here, Hardy alludes to a scene in the Bible (Daniel 2), when the Jewish captive Daniel is the only one capable of interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a giant statue made of four metals with feet of iron and clay, subsequently shattered to pieces by a stone from heaven. The Swaffham tinker, on the other hand, was a peddler from Norfolk by the name of John Chapman, who, two millennia after Nebuchadnezzar, dreamt that he should hear joyful news if he went to the London Bridge and stood there. And, indeed, he did: from a man who took him as a fool for making the journey on the basis of a simple dream, he learned that there’s a vast treasure buried under an oak tree in his own orchard!
Example #8: Penelope
There is always about you,’ he said, ‘a sort of waiting. Whatever I see you doing, you’re not really there: you are waiting—like Penelope when she did her weaving.’ He could not help a spurt of wickedness. ‘I’ll call you Penelope,’ he said.
– D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (1913)
Penelope was the wife of Odysseus who spent ten years waiting for her husband to return home from the Trojan War, itself a decade-long affair. In an attempt to put off her numerous suitors—over a hundred of them—she started weaving a shroud for her deceased father-in-law and promised to remarry only after finishing the piece. However, each night she unwove the threads knitted during the day, thus constantly postponing this event. Unsurprisingly, Penelope is often thought of as the archetype of the faithful wife, an epitome of patience and marital loyalty.
Example #9: Svengali
Suddenly the spirit of that evil man is haunting this house. He has become your Svengali!
– John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)
Mentioned in an episode of Seinfeld, Svengali is a masterful musician in George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby, and personal voice trainer of the title protagonist, Trilby O’Ferrall, a half-Irish tone-deaf girl living in Paris. Only his training sessions are actually hypnotic seances. Eventually, they do make a famous diva out of Trilby, but also his string-puppet as well. In fact, his influence over her is so great that after Svengali dies from a heart attack during a performance in London, Trilby suddenly forgets how to sing—or even why she ever started singing in the first place; she dies herself a few weeks later. A Svengali is someone who exercises a malicious, hypnotic and near-total control over another person. To use another—more well-known—allusion to further describe him: a Svengali is basically a fictional Rasputin; or the other way around.
Example #10: Sibyl
She would lie with far-seeing eyes like a sibyl, stroking my face and repeating over and over again: ‘If you knew how I have lived you would leave me. I am not the woman for you, for any man. I am exhausted. Your kindness is wasted.’
– Lawrence Durrell, Justine (1957)
Sibyls were female oracles in Ancient Greece, so the allusion made in this excerpted sentence by Darley—Durrell’s narrator in his masterful tetralogy, Alexandria Quartet—to the “far-seeing eyes” of his mistress, the Greek prostitute Melissa, is immediately obvious. However, since it’s an account of one of Melissa’s depressive episodes, there may be more to this description. You see, just like Cassandra, the most famous of all sibyls, the Cumaean Sibyl, was loved by Apollo, who granted her immortality for exchange of her innocence, but not eternal youth. Old and exhausted, she spent years of her life yearning for death. You may also remember that the epigraph to T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land, taken from Petronius’ Satyricon, explicitly mentions this episode: “For with my own eyes I saw the Sibyl hanging in a bottle, and when the young boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’, she replied, ‘I want to die.’”