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.