Allusions that Allude

I remember when Mrs. Roby, my high school English teacher, told our class on the first day of junior English that we would never understand literature until we had a firm grasp of allusions and proceeded to assign of the New Testament and Proverbs for reading; it was due the next Monday. How could she possibly expect us to read the New Testament in a week? But the following Monday we were testing on our reading – the entire New Testament and Proverbs. The next week we proceeded to read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, in a week, and were tested on that as well. And now, Mrs. Roby claimed, we were ready to read and understand literature.

There’s a lot of value in what my high school English teacher was teaching us: in order to understand allusions, one must know the context of the allusion to understand how it relates and gives meaning to a text. Allusions are usually simply referenced in student writing but not explained thoroughly leaving the reader to interpret and draw conclusions about their meaning and connection to the central text; additionally, allusions are becoming more and more problematic for students as they are reading less and less.

Potential problems for writing on allusion

  • Students often identify what one person represents but fail to explain the meaning behind the allusion. For example, consider this sentence from a student essay on Frankenstein alluding to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “William, Justine, and Henry would be the Mariner’s shipmates who died because of his actions against the albatross.” This is completely true but does not explain the WHY behind this claim.
  • Students may not understand the allusion because they have never heard of it. In my class students often read over allusions such as betrayed with a kiss, an Achilles heel, or out, out damn’d spot because they have no prior knowledge of them.
  • Students may offer a summary of an allusion but lack of analysis.
  • Students may unpack the meaning of the allusion but not apply the allusion to the meaning of the work as a whole.
  • Students confuse any reference to religion or God as an allusion.
  • Students analyze the meaning of the allusion but fail to use that meaning to help make inferences about tone, plot development, characterization, or other ways the author may be using it to add further meaning to the text.

Questions to consider for allusion

  • Do I fully understand what is being referenced or do I need to do more research on the allusion?
  • How does this allusion provide context for the scene?
  • What does the allusion reveal about a character?
  • How does the allusion reveal meaning about the theme?
  • Could the allusion be foreshadowing events to come? (My classes spoke specifically about this a few days ago when Polonius tells Hamlet, “I was killed in the Capitol. Brutus killed me.”
  • How does the allusion add to the tone of the passage?
  • If the allusion is ongoing, how do the references to it parallel, develop, and add meaning to the plot?

Try it out

Analyze the allusion in Jesmyn Ward’s work Salvage the Bones. Present students with this short passage. Ask them simply, “What do you notice?” Then work to move them to the “So what?” portion and questions to consider for literary analysis.

In this passage Esch is watching her family prepare for the impending storm and sorting through her feelings for Manny which are complicated by the fact that she has recently discovered she is pregnant with his child. Since her mother passed during her younger brother’s childbirth, Esch is the only female in her family and develops into a young woman on her own.

When I wake up for the second time, the air is hot, and the ceiling is so low, the heat can’t rise. It doesn’t have any place to go. I’m surprised Daddy hasn’t sent Junior in here to get me up by now, to work around the house and prepare for hurricane. Late last night, he and junior carried some of the jugs in, lined them up against the wall while I made tuna fish. Daddy kept counting the bottles over and over again as if he couldn’t remember, glanced at me and Randall as if we were plotting to steal some. If Randall’s told him that I’m sick, he won’t care. Maybe they’ve scattered: Junior under the house, Randall to play ball, Skeet in the shed with China and her puppies. My stomach sizzles sickly, so I pull my book from the corner of my bed where it’s smashed between my wall the mattress. In Mythology, I am still reading about Medea and the quest for the Golden Fleece. Here is someone that I recognize. When Medea falls in love with Jason, it grabs me by the throat. I can see her. Medea sneaks Jason things to help him: ointments to make him invincible, secrets in rocks. She is magic, could bend the natural to the unnatural. But even with all her power Jason bends her like a young pine in a hard wind; he makes her double in two. I know her.

Don’t write this…
“In this excerpt from Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, Esch thinks about Medea because she can relate to her.”
“Ward uses an allusion because she wants to draw a parallel between Esch and Medea.”

Why not?
Authors always use allusions because of a connection which gives further meaning to a character, scene, or the text in general; this is a given. This student falls short because she fails to explain the allusion and draw conclusions about the character based on the allusion.

Write This!
“Through the allusion of Medea, Esch finds someone with whom she can identify even though she has to step outside of her physical world to do so. Surrounded by men and the impending storm, Esch escapes into thoughts of a female heroine who also loves hard describing her reading of Medea falling in love with Jason as grabbing her ‘by the throat’. Esch has no choice in her love, like Medea, and like Medea uses her ‘magic’ to rise above her circumstances and survive in her harsh world. Esch ends simply by saying ‘I know her’ to infer that Medea is not just a character but someone who becomes her role model as she does not have any females to look up to .”

Why this?
The sample details why Esch thinks of Medea thus adding to her characterization as a female protagonist trapped in an all-male world. The writer uses the phrase “by the throat” to emphasize how powerful and aggressive Esch’s love for Manny is, almost like she is not in control of her feelings. This sample also references the storm further anchoring the allusion to the central text and hints to a larger theme that Esch is coming of age and learning the reality of love.

Final thoughts

Allusions are hard but add so much depth to texts. Teachers choose to deal with allusions in different ways: some provide handouts with common allusions at the beginning of the year as a reference, some assign allusion projects where students research and explain common allusions to the class, and some deal with allusions as they are encountered in a text. There’s no “right” way to teach allusions, but the more we encourage our students to read, the more they will encounter and understand allusions.

I survived my junior English class and advanced to senior English, taught also by Mrs. Roby, and was relieved to find out that we did not have to read The Complete Works of William Shakespeare that year (only King Lear, Macbeth, and The Merchant of Venice.)

How do you teach students to write about allusions?

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