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Fun With Literary Allusions

Mona Lisa [1]Let’s talk about literary allusion. For some of you, it may be a literary device you haven’t thought much about since tenth grade English, but it is a technique that I love as a reader and turn to often in my own writing to inform a character, to enrich a scene, or to evoke emotion.

First. A refresher. Literary allusion is a quick reference to something or someone of historical significance–whether real or fictional. “A little bit of one story joins onto an idea from another, and hey presto, . . . not old tales but new ones.” (Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990))  But the success of an allusion in enhancing the new tale depends on how well-seated the old tale is in the intended audience’s collective psyche. For example, a writer would have greater success with an allusion if it were made to Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” than if it were made to Leonardo’s “Ginevra de Benci.” Most, if not all of us can immediately call to mind Mona Lisa’s secretive smile, but what of poor Ginevra? Hers is a face that has been lost to the centuries.[pullquote]Most, if not all of us can immediately call to mind Mona Lisa’s secretive smile, but what of poor Ginevra? Hers is a face that has been lost to the centuries.[/pullquote]

Consider this excerpt from Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep (2013): “Danny strolled to the town common, sat on one of the benches in Teenytown and took one of the bottles out of the bag, looking down on it like Hamlet with Yorick’s skull.” It is a successful allusion because it adds meaning to the scene (the bottle is a symbol of the shortness of life, just like the skull) and because it informs the reader about the character of Danny (the bottle has been his longtime acquaintance, just as “Poor Yorick” was to Hamlet).

So it is good to remember the general rule: that allusions should recall something commonly accessible. But like most rules, don’t be afraid to break this one because allusions can also be

just about having fun.

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Page (HarperCollins 2014) [2]
Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Page (HarperCollins 2014)

Having Fun with Titles.  Using literary allusions in titles has long been a fashionable thing to do. For example, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes alludes to Macbeth IV.i; Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Cracked alludes to Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott;” and Marissa Meyer’s popular YA series alludes to favorite fairytales: Cinder (Cinderella); Scarlet (Red Riding Hood); Cress (Rapunzel); and Fairest (Snow White).

Allusive titles can easily fall into a clichéd trope, but they can be meaningful when the reference is not only “catchy” but spotlights the theme or message of your story. For example, the movie title “Mona Lisa Smile” (2003) is an effective use of literary allusion because the movie is about an art professor, but also because it evokes a clear image of a woman with a secret. In this case, the 1950s art professor who moves to Wellesley College personifies the “secret” of the coming cultural revolution for women.

Having Fun with Characters.  Another way to use allusion is to inform the reader about the nature of a character. Name someone Abe, and the reader will assume they are honest. Name them Benedict Arnold and . . . well, you get my point.

In the YA novel The Fault in Our Stars (John Green, 2012), Augustus Waters tell us his favorite band is “The Hectic Glow,” thereby alluding to Henry David Thoreau’s words: “Decay and disease are often beautiful, like the pearly tear of the shellfish and the hectic glow of consumption.” The allusion beautifully summarizes how Augustus is able to fall in love, despite his pending demise.

In Lemony Snicket’s MG series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, most if not all of the characters allude to historical writers who emphasize the morbidity of the series’ characters and plot. For example, the Baudelaire orphans are named after the 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire, who is famous for his morbid poetry collection. Mr. Poe, the coughing banker, and his two sons (Edgar and Allan) allude to Edgar Allan Poe, who was always coughing as the result of consumption and was known for his morbid stories. Dr. Georgina Orwell uses hypnosis to force the other characters to think the same way (à la George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm).

Obviously, these allusions may be beyond the average fourth grader, but remember these books are often read aloud by parents, teachers, and librarians. Call it a “teaching moment,” or call it just plain fun and games.

Having Fun with Scene.  Allusion can help you create the visual imagery of your scene. Some quick and dirty examples:

Lemony Snicket names a deadly pass the Plath Pass (Sylvia Plath); a tree, the Nevermore Tree (Poe); and a river bank, the Ophelia Bank (alluding to Hamlet’s Ophelia who drowns in a river).

For myself, I used allusions to “The Lady of Shalott” to set a pivotal scene in my YA series. I referred to “willows” and “aspens shiver[ing],” the lake looking like a “mirror” and my character being dressed in white. Where Tennyson wrote, “I am half sick of shadows,” my character says, “regardless how sick I was of shadows, I opted for the water and pulled deeper into the dark recesses of the cave.” All of this helped bring a sense of foreboding to the moment my main character, like the Lady, gets in a small boat and goes off to face her likely demise.

Having Fun with Theme.  Finally, allusion can help you make your point quickly and efficiently. It can also help the reader remember your message or theme. The most often cited example in YA literature is S.E. Hinton’s YA classic, The Outsiders (1967).

In The Outsiders, Ponyboy Curtis is hiding out with his friend Johnny, who has just committed an accidental murder. As they wake up, the clouds change from gray to pink and then to gold. Johnny says, “That sure was pretty…. Too bad it couldn’t stay like that all the time,” to which Ponyboy responds, “Nothing gold can stay.”

It’s a clear allusion to Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and highlights their loss of innocence and the frailty of life. The emotion is palpable, and the allusion makes it memorable and meaningful for the reader. It is one of the many reasons the novel, written by a teenager in the 1960s, is so widely taught in classrooms today.

So that’s the end of this episode on “Fun with Allusions.”

I would love to hear whether you are using literary allusion in your writing, or what your favorite examples are in any books you have read. Please let me know in the comments.

About Anne Brown [3]

Anne Brown (@AnneGBrown [4]) writes adult romance (paranormal and contemporary) under the pen name "A. S. Green," for which she is a USA TODAY Best Selling Author. She began her publishing life with young adult ("YA") fiction, and is the author of the LIES BENEATH trilogy (Random House/Delacorte Press), GIRL LAST SEEN (co-author/ Albert Whitman & Co.), and COLD HARD TRUTH (Albert Whitman, April 2018). She is represented by Jacqueline Flynn of Joelle Delbourgo Associates. Anne was a proud contributor to Writer Unboxed's AUTHOR IN PROGRESS as well as a presenter at the 2016 and 2019 UnConference. She has been a guest blogger for WU since 2010.