The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Allusion: An indirect reference, often to a person, event, statement, theme, or work. Allusions enrich meaning through the connotations they carry. An author’s use of this device tends to presuppose that readers in general will possess the knowledge necessary to make the connection, but sometimes allusions are used that only a choice few can understand.

EXAMPLES: Someone who says, “Frankly, my dear …” is probably alluding to Rhett Butler’s parting words to his mercurial wife Scarlett in the movie version of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936; adapted to film 1939): “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

When, in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), a voice says

I remember

Those are pearls that were his eyes

some readers will recognize the allusion to William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (c. 1611), in which the character Ariel sings:

Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes

lines that Caroline Kennedy read at the memorial service for her brother, John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in 1999, and that Neil Gaiman alludes to in his novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013): “I thought of corpses and skeletons with pearls for eyes.” But when, in Eliot’s “Gerontion” (1920), the speaker says

I was neither at the hot gates

Nor fought in the warm rain

only readers of Greek would be likely to know that “hot gates” is an allusion to the fifth-century B.C. Battle of Thermopylae (literally, “hot gates”) between the Greeks and the Persians.

Allusions to ancient events and literary classics may be found even in popular culture. Hot Gates is the name of a former porn star in Frank Miller’s graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986). The Eagles’ song “Get Over It” (1994) alludes to William Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2 (c. 1594) by quoting “Old Billy’s” famous line “Let’s kill all the lawyers” verbatim.

In the following Doonesbury comic strip, Garry Trudeau visually alludes to Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts with an image of Trudeau’s lovable hippie, Zonker Harris, who is dressed like Schulz’s Charlie Brown and looks addled atop Snoopy’s iconic doghouse.


In the first panel two old men are shown. One of the old man is reading the notes “DEAR GUYS: WERE YOU SYNDICATED IMMEDIATELY, OR DID IT TAKE A FEW TRIES? P.Z., DENVER.” The second panel shows one of the old men. A thought bubble pointing to him reads “WELL P.Z., “A FEW TRIES” IS PUTTING IT MILDLY! 34 EARLY VERSIONS OF THIS STRIP WERE REJECTED, INCLUDING MY PERSONAL FAVORITE, “Ll’L FREAKS.” In the third panel one of the old men is lying on a wooden block at an outdoor. In the fourth panel two old men are shown. A chat bubble pointing to one of the old men, reads “IT WAS THOUGHT TO BE TOO DERIVATIVE.” Another chat bubble pointing to the other old man, reads “BALONEY! OF WHAT?”