Allusion and reference

An allusion is an implicit reference in a work of literature to something from another piece of literature, like a poem or a novel. However, it can also be from art, music, history, or religion. The reference could be to a character, place, or situation.

Allusions are windows to emotions or deeper meanings. They also simplify complex ideas. They are ‘zip-files’, compact packages with a lot of information, and work as enforcers. It helps to know the alluded piece of work as it strengthens the given situation, or clarify, for example, a choice in the story.

The boy’s eyes are hazel brown, usually dreamy and soft, but can suddenly ignite with joy or rage and blaze, like meteoric eyes of souls too large and fierce to go gentle – “gentle into that good night”.

Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive, p. 43

This is an allusion to the poem by Dylan Thomas “Do not go gentle into that good night¨:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night”

The poem is about the idea that people should not die defeated, not accept death but fight it, fiercely, in rage. Also notice the allusion of the meteor in ‘meteoric eyes’ from the novel, which connects to the poem’s “blaze like meteors”. The allusion is used to enforce the boy’s character: he can be dreamy, but can also be a fierce adversary when things matter.

When a piece, like a poem, is explicitly mentioned in a text, we usually call it a reference. Here is an example from the same novel:

“There’s a part in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that used to be a kind of ur-text or manifesto for my husband and me when we were still a new couple, still imagining and working out our future together. It begins with the lines:

Passing stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you,
You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me as of a dream,)
I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
All is recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured,
You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me,
I ate with you and slept with you…
The poem explained, or so we thought, why we had decided to devote our lives, alone but together, to recording sounds of strangers…

Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive, p. 29

In this case we don’t speak of an allusion, but of a reference, as the Walt Whitman’s piece is explicitly mentioned by Luiselli.


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