Literary Allusion ~ by Anne Greenwood Brown

Anne Greenwood Brown (@AnneGBrown)
writes MG and YA fiction. She is represented by Jacqueline Flynn of Joelle
Delbourgo Associates, and is the author of the LIES BENEATH trilogy (Random
House/Delacorte Press). Her new book THE TWISTED LIFE (Albert Whitman &
Co.) is anticipated for March 2016.
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.
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
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
about having fun.
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
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.