Feeling the impact of allusions

But use it right or it could be your Waterloo – Roopa Banerjee

‘Ah, Krusty — this is your Waterloo!’ says Sideshow Bob in the iconic TV show The Simpsons, alluding to the Battle of Waterloo, where French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte suffered a crushing defeat from which he would never recover. Here, Bob uses the literary device allusion to suggest that Krusty is about to go down just as Napoleon was decimated at Waterloo.

Allusion is a figure of speech that references a person, place, thing, event or other work of artistic expression. The word allusion originates from the Latin alludere, ‘to play with’ or ‘to jest’. Even though using allusion does not inevitably include humour, many jokes allude to recent events or renowned personalities.

Most allusions give clear reference to the original source material and also use the reference for new purposes. For example, Big Brother is now a popular reality television show in many countries around the world but few know that the phrase Big Brother is from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 (Orwell, in turn, borrowed the phrase from a billboard of World War ll). Although big brother merely describes a family relation, Big Brother now alludes to mass surveillance and abuse of government power.

Similarly, the phrase Catch-22 commonly means a situation without a good solution. But it is actually an allusion to Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 (1961) about a group of soldiers stranded on an Italian island during World War II. It illustrates their difficulties with every solution creating a new problem.

Another example is Achilles’ heel which refers to a weakness of a strong person. Achilles is a popular figure of Greek mythology and a hero of the Trojan War. He was said to be invulnerable except in his heel. During the Trojan War when Prince Paris shot Achilles’ in his heel, the wound proved fatal. Since then, Achilles’ heel is an idiom referring to attributes or qualities other than physical that can lead to one’s downfall.

Sometimes, a once-uttered phrase by a famous person can lend itself to coining an allusion. In 1968, artist Andy Warhol made the comment, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” The phrase ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ has become an oft-used allusion, especially with the advent of reality television and social media.
Allusions are useful for adding emotion to writing because of the prior association that the reader has with the allusion. Often, allusions to a historical event form an important part of texts. In Harper Lee’s book To Kill A Mockingbird, there’s a line saying: “The Cunninghams are country folks, farmers, and the crash hit them hardest.” The crash is an allusion to the US stock market crash of 1929 that led to the Great Depression. Readers not familiar with this cataclysmic event would be confused about what type of crash devastated the Cunninghams.

The problem with allusions is that if the reader does not understand the context, the effect is lost. A lot depends on how an author uses this device, mainly by keeping in mind the knowledge capability of targeted readers. Referencing World War II events in a book for six-year-olds is unlikely to make allusions effective. Or, indeed, referencing pop culture like a recent Indian film release in an essay for Americans will lose all meaning. In allusions, the context is everything.

Explain The Allusions:

Here’s a quiz to test your ability to identify allusions! Identify the word or phrase which is used for allusion and its origin:
1. You are such a Scrooge!
2. If you do that it will only open a Pandora’s box!
3. He helped me a great deal. He is a good Samaritan.

1. Scrooge. Alluding to Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol, it means that the addressee is being miserly and selfish, like Scrooge, a character in the novel.
2. Pandora’s Box. This is an allusion to the Greek mythical story of Pandora who by accidentally opening a box released evil into the world.
3. This is an allusion to the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan. A good Samaritan is someone who helps others in need, as the Samaritan does in the biblical parable.

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