With only a word or two, an allusion stimulates ideas and associations in the reader’s mind. However, to be effective, the reader must be familiar with the original source of the allusion and with what the allusion means. To understand that the allusion “he was a Judas” means “the person was a traitor,” the reader must be familiar with the story of Judas's betrayal of Jesus.
Because allusions must be familiar to the reader, they tend to come from sources such as Bible stories, myths, folktales, and historical events that are deeply embedded in the culture. In this section, you will see how writer Truman Capote uses these sources to deepen our understanding of his writing.
Capote (1924–1984) was an American author. Many of his short stories, novels, plays, and nonfiction works are recognized literary classics. His writing includes the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, which he labeled a “nonfiction novel.” Capote became preoccupied with journalism and, sparked by the murder of a wealthy family in Holcomb, Kansas, began interviewing the locals to recreate the lives of the murderers and their victims. The research and writing for In Cold Blood took six years for him to complete.
The story begins on November 15, 1959, in Holcomb, with the savage murder of the Clutter family. There is no apparent motive for the crime nor any clues. Not only does Capote include allusions in the first chapter of the book, but he might be using them as hints to the horrific events to come. Capote provides clues to prompt the reader to consider what is going to happen.
On the first page of the book, he describes the flat Kansas farmland.
In this passage, Capote uses an allusion to describe the orchard on his property. Read the passage that follows and highlight the allusion by clicking on the word or words that are part of the allusion. If you choose correctly, the text will highlight.
Fifty years ago, according to native memory, it would have taken a lumberjack ten minutes to axe all the trees in western Kansas. Even today, only cottonwoods and Chinese elms—perennials with a cactus-like indifference to thirst—are commonly planted. However, as Mr. Clutter often remarked, “an inch more of rain and this country would be paradise—Eden on earth.”
Mr. Clutter comments that Western Kansas could be a more beautiful place or an “Eden” with additional rainfall. We know what happens in the Garden of Eden: Adam and Eve eat the apple, killing their innocence. Capote may be foreshadowing that this “almost” Eden will lose its innocence.
In this passage, Capote introduces a group of strangers approaching the homestead and describes how the Clutter’s dog reacts to them. Read the passage that follows and highlight the allusion by clicking on the word or words that are part of the allusion. If you choose correctly, the text will highlight.
Now, suddenly, a whole party of them appeared, and Teddy, the dog rushed forward roaring out a challenge. But it was odd about Teddy. Though he was a good sentry, alert, ever ready to raise Cain, his valor had one flaw: let glimpse of a gun, as he did now—for the intruders were armed — and his head dropped, his tail turned in.
As you can see, allusion can be a powerful tool for writers and speakers to use to make their points. The trick for the reader is to recognize when allusion is being employed. When you recognize allusion and what it alludes to, you can experience the full impact of an author’s words. That’s when you “get it”!
Recognizing allusions can be easy or difficult depending on the allusion, your background in literature and history, and where you grew up. One of the best ways to build your allusion toolbox is to read widely and critically. Critical reading means to read with an eye toward rhetorical or literary devices that can appear in a text. When you come across a particular phrase or word that seems to have greater emphasis or is capitalized, you should take a closer look and think about it. You may find that allusions are footnoted at the bottom of the pages in your reading. You can add to your toolbox just by reading the footnotes! Also, watching plays and movies and attending ballets and operas can broaden your cultural literacy and help you recognize the stories connected to allusions.
Complete the following sentences with your own allusion. Remember allusions can refer to famous people, books, events, music, and art. Feel free to research these answer choices and use them in your own writing.
Directions: Click each response below to see why it may be correct.
As you may have noticed, all of the responses were correct. Sometimes, no matter what you choose, it’s a yellow brick road. Now you are ready to test your knowledge in the next section.