No matter where you live, you are surrounded by your cultural heritage. This heritage includes historical figures and events that you might be familiar with from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, or world events such as revolutions or world wars. There are many events and people (both real and fictional) from which to draw references or inspiration. Sometimes these references are called allusions. Allusion is a powerful literary device and will be the focus of this lesson.

Writers use allusion—or a short reference to a person, event, or work of art—in their writing in order to build connections with their readers. What makes allusion tricky is that it is usually indirect or implied. Unless you are familiar with what an author is alluding to, you may not understand the meaning of a piece of writing. Writers use allusions to summarize broad, complex ideas or emotions in one quick, powerful image, but the effectiveness of an allusion depends on a body of knowledge shared by the writer and reader. You either get it or you don’t!

Following their third and final debate of the 2008 election, Senators McCain and Obama shared a stage for the second night in a row on October 16, 2008. The occasion was the site of the annual Al Smith Memorial Dinner, a political tradition in New York where candidates compete to see who can muster the biggest laughs. Soon-to-be-President Obama used two allusions to make fun of himself. Can you pick out the two allusions in this excerpt?

A close-up portrait of John McCain and Barack Obama at a debate, standing against a field of red and white stripes in the background. Both men look thoughtful, as if they are considering a difficult problem.

Source: Barack Obama and John McCain, The Contemporary Condition (Blog entry, 6/29/11)

Who is Barack Obama? Contrary to the rumors you have heard, I was not born in a manger. I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father Jor-El to save the Planet Earth. Many of you know that I got my name, Barack, from my father. What you may not know is Barack is actually Swahili for ‘That One.’ And I got my middle name from somebody who obviously didn’t think I’d ever run for president. If I had to name my greatest strength, I guess it would be my humility. Greatest weakness, it’s possible that I’m a little too awesome.

—Senator Barack Obama

If you guessed that the first allusion is Obama’s statement that he was “not born in a manger,” you’re correct! He alludes to Christianity’s Jesus Christ to express that he is not perfect or divine. You may chuckle when Obama says, “I was actually born on Krypton” and adds that he was “sent to save the Planet Earth” because you know he isn’t Superman either. While he intends these remarks to be humorous, you wouldn’t understand his comments at all if you didn’t understand Senator Obama’s allusions.