Thursday, February 6, 2014


Remember in middle school English class, when you learned all those literary terms like alliteration and hyperbole and denouement? One of them was allusion, and it's one that has bothered me for a long time.

The image above is a literary allusion. Do you recognize what it's alluding to? I do, because I grew up in the United States of America from the 1980s to now. I might still recognize it if I grew up in dozens of other countries around the world, in other decades, or if I spoke other languages. But that's only because it's from the most published and most translated and most sold book in the entire world. For goodness' sake, it was the first book printed by movable type!

This image, too, is a literary allusion. But a far greater number of people wouldn't "get" it. (It's from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, if you're one of the ones who doesn't.)

And therein lies my problem with allusions. If you aren't familiar with the piece being alluded to, you can't enjoy the piece in front of you. Or maybe you can, but not on the level the author planned. That might even happen if you know what they're talking about, but you haven't interpreted it in the same way they did, or the way they thought you would.

I don't know if Stephanie Meyer did it on purpose, or even if it worked, but I can only hope that the popularity of Twilight boosted the popularity of Pride and Prejudice. (It may be impossible to tell, given the publication of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies one year after the release of the first Twilight movie.) But Bella keeps referring back to the Jane Austen book she reads over and over again, as an - admittedly obvious - way to better describe the relationship developing between herself and Edward. (That's another thing that irks me about allusions... The attitude is often, "If you can't write it well enough yourself, rely on the ability of those who came before you." It also points out very obviously where you took most of your ideas from.)

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is full of allusions, because it's referring to the books that the firemen are burning. When Guy Montag picks up a book and reads it, it is more fitting that he read something we - as readers - can associate with. If he picks up a fictional book-within-a-book, (1) it feels more like a deus ex machina that Bradbury dropped in to move things along, and (2) we don't care about it nearly as much. Granted, the first time I read this book, I didn't know that the "lillies of the field" bit was from the Bible, and every time I've read it since, I've been an atheist, but the Bible (as I mentioned above) is an important part of a large percentage of the world's history, and to burn every copy of it would not only be a monumental task, but a terribly destructive one, in the sense that an enormous part of history would suddenly be gone, and inaccessible to future generations. You feel more invested in the story when you know all of that, and the allusion has succeeded in adding layers to the story.

Dylan Thomas's poem "Do not go gentle into that good night" is a big deal in the Matched trilogy. A lot of other poems and books pop up, at varying levels of importance (at one point in Crossed, a mention is made of an unnamed novel by Ray Bradbury, and given the fact that they burn books that don't belong in the Society, I can't help but think it's the one I mentioned above). Knowing about them beforehand can be helpful in understanding the plot and characters, but the important ones get repeated often enough (and in pieces, to emphasize the particularly important parts at that time) and interpreted in enough detail by the characters to serve as an introduction to them and some of their possible meanings without being didactic. I think Condie's background as an English teacher helps here, without being overwhelmingly obvious as a poetry lesson.

When done well (subtle introductions; introducing multiple possible meanings through the characters' thoughts and dialogue; breaking the alluded-to piece down and repeating often enough to remind the reader but not so often they get sick of it) allusions can help a story. When done badly (not enough explanation for those unfamiliar with the reference; too much explanation to force an interpretation on the reader; making tenuous ties between mostly unrelated things; letting on that the author stole all their other ideas from the referenced work as well) it can ruin the entire story.

What are some of the most notable examples of allusion you've noticed in your reading? How do you feel about them?

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