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An allusion is a reference to a concept, person, thing, or event. The allusion is often indirect and can come from any number of sources such as literature, history, religion, myths and legends, or popular culture. When an author or speaker alludes to something, he or she assumes that the reader or listener will recognize the reference and will be familiar with the source. In rare circumstances, an allusion may be intended for a select group and not every reader will understand the reference.
A literary example of allusion would be the comedic monologue performed by the duke in Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. When the duke begins, “To be, or not to be, that is the bare bodkin,” readers know immediately that Twain has alluded to the original soliloquy of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet “To be or not to be, that is the question…That patient merit of th'unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make, With a bare bodkin…” Twain has alluded to Hamlet, but has turned the words around to showcase the idiocy and falseness of the duke.
T.S. Eliot’s “Gerontion" (1920) also uses allusion in referring to the “hot gates” which refer to the fifth-century B.C. Battle of Thermapylae between the Greeks and the Persians. In “Gerontion," Eliot says, “I was neither at the hot gates, Nor fought in the warm rain.” This might be an example of a reference intended for a small group of readers, those familiar with Greek writing.
An allusion can also be found in some instances of pop culture. When an individual jokes that they plan to make someone an offer they can’t refuse, we hear the echoes of Don Corleone’s famous words in The Godfather (1972), “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” Another example of allusion would be Rhett Butler’s famous words at the end of the book and movie versions of Gone With the Wind. Anyone who says, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” is alluding to Butler’s final departure from Scarlet O’Hara’s life.
The goal of an author or speaker using allusion is to enhance the audience’s understanding of a text or subject by calling upon other sources.