Allusions Ahab, the protagonist in Herman Melville’s

Allusions and illusions have little in common besides the fact that they sound similar. Learn the difference between the two and how allusions are an important part of literature and writing – and how to spot them in text.

Allusion and Illusion: Definitions and Examples

Illusion and allusion; they’re not actually closely related to each other, but they sound so similar, students often mix the two up. Allusion (note the soft ‘a’) is a literary term, while an illusion is something that a literary character might experience. Let’s take a look at the two.

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When your senses deceive you, you’ve got an illusion, which is a false representation of something – literally seeing (or hearing, tasting, touching, smelling) something that isn’t there.

3-D movies are a kind of illusion, in that they give a picture the appearance of depth (three dimensions) when the reality is that the image is flat. A mirage, like the classic example of thinking you see water in the desert, is also a kind of illusion, as is this famous eye teaser.The exercise above works because we see with our brain rather than with our eyes. Our eyes only receive an image while our brain is responsible for interpreting that image. By objective measure – time to break out your ruler – these two middle circles are equal in size, but the circles that surround them trick the brain into giving them the appearance of difference sizes; that is, the illusion of inequality.


An allusion, on the other hand, isn’t a trick at all, but rather an indirect or glancing reference to another work, person, place or event. If it helps, remember that illusion usually revolves around an image (‘I’ for illusion), while allusions can refer to almost anything. Aside from sounding alike, the two don’t mean similar things at all! For example, if I say, ‘This professor is colder than Darth Vader,’ I’m alluding to a character from the Star Wars movies. Likewise, if I say ‘When it comes to winning that scholarship, David is as relentless as Ahab,’ I’m alluding to Captain Ahab, the protagonist in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and using that allusion to draw a comparison between Ahab’s complete devotion to capturing the whale in the novel and David’s pursuit of success in real life.Allusions are sometimes easy to miss in a text because they require you, the reader, to know and understand the thing being referenced. If you didn’t know who Ahab was, for instance, that allusion would fly right over your head, and thus you’d miss a critical comparison the writer was making about David’s character.

On the other hand, allusions are useful for writers because they’re a kind of shorthand that allow them to make quick, indirect references to something larger that’s part of the cultural consciousness, without having to go into an in-depth explanation of how the thing being alluded to is like the writer’s subject.Moreover, when an allusion clicks with a reader – that could be you, or your audience if you’re the one writing the allusion – it creates a little tingle of pleasure as the reader recognizes the reference and connects it back to the passage. Human brains love making connections; they’re quite literally built for it. When you use an allusion successfully, your writing is stronger as a result.

Allusion in Poetry

Let’s look at a couple of examples of allusion in poetry. Check out this excerpt from the poem, ‘Land of the Discount Price, Home of the Brand Name,’ by Harryette Mullen.I’ve clipped a terrific recipefrom Sunday’s paper. A Betsy Rossrectangular cake covered withstrawberries, blueberries, and Cool Whip,with a coupon for the Cool Whip.

Do you know what a ‘Betsy Ross rectangular cake’ is? Well, if you understood the allusion – that Betsy Ross was the creator of the first American flag – Mullen’s meaning would be clear. This is further reinforced when you see that strawberries, Cool Whip, and blueberries are the colors of the flag: red, white, and blue. So, we’ve got a flag cake.Here’s another, perhaps more difficult example, from the first few lines of ‘Portrait of a Lady,’ by William Carlos Williams.Your thighs are appletreeswhose blossoms touch the sky.

Which sky?The sky where Watteauhung a lady’s slipper.Well, you could probably guess here there is an allusion to ‘Watteau,’ because of the capitals and it seems like a proper name. But, this is one of those trickier cases, because in order to understand this part of the poem, you have to understand that Jean-Antoine Watteau was a French artist who specialized in painting dapper lovers in idealized landscapes.

The allusion is there, but without that knowledge of what is being alluded to, the connection is lost. Don’t despair, though! Part of the fun in understanding literature is finding out more about the references that pass you by and making the connections for yourself.

Allusion in Fiction

Now, let’s look at an example of allusion in fiction:’There was so much to read, for one thing, and so much fine health to be pulled down out of the young breath-giving air.

I bought a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities, and they stood on my shelf in red and gold like new money from the mint, promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew.’This passage, from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, alludes to three classic figures representing wealth: King Midas, for whom everything he touched turned to gold, J.P. Morgan, an American captain of industry, and Gaius Maecenas, an advisor and close friend of Caesar Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome.

In this way, Midas and Morgan and Maecenas is shorthand for immense wealth, power, and influence.So, why not just say immense wealth, power, and influence? Well, for one thing, it’s more poetic to make the allusion to the other figures, but more importantly, each of these characters has his own story, which allows you to make deeper inferences about the author’s intentions for his characters than you could if he hadn’t made these allusions.

Lesson Summary

An illusion is a trick of the brain allowing you to sense something that isn’t there. An allusion is a glancing reference to something else: another literary work, a place, an event, a person, etc. Allusions differ from long-form references in that they require the reader to understand what’s being referenced, rather than explaining the context for the reference.

Allusions will not make complete sense to you unless you have the knowledge of the thing that’s being alluded to. Allusions help readers make deeper, more memorable connections to the text.

Learning Outcome

When you finish this lesson, you should be able to differentiate between illusion and allusion and give examples of each.


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