Why are allusions such an illusion?

The image above is from a great Buzzfeed piece called “16 Fancy Literary Techniques Explained by Disney” and is from The Hunchback of Notre Dame Below the picture is the following: 

Definition: A brief reference in a literary work to a person, place, thing, or passage in another literary work, usually for the purpose of associating the tone or theme of the one work with the other. Example: In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the gargoyle Laverne tells a flock of pigeons to “Fly my pretties! Fly, Fly!” à la the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz

Allusion is one of the “big” literary terms on the tenth grade curriculum, which is understandable because allusion abounds in literature as well as popular culture*. Therefore, it should be one of the easiest terms to remember.

Uh … you know where this is going …

For some reason, my sophomores have an enormous amount of trouble with allusion. If I ask them quickly to tell me the definition or point to an allusion in something we’re reading, I get the kind of blank stares that Ben Stein got when he was talking about “voodoo economics.” And it’s not like I haven’t tried different ways of getting the idea across–I’m insane but not that insane–I just can’t seem to make this particular term stick.  Theme? Easy. Tone? Nailed it. Mood? Sure. Foil? Set it and forget it. Allusion? Your world frightens and confuses me!

So yet again it’s been back to the drawing board for this term and as I go back I’ve been wondering not just how to teach allusion in a different way but why my students can’t seem to grasp this. After all, like I said, allusions are everywhere, they’re here already! You’re next!

Really, though, I think I’ve been able to pinpoint the cause (which wasn’t easy because examining student deficiency when it comes to the definition of allusion ain’t like dustin’ crops) or at least one of the reasons and it really has to do with a lack of understanding of context. In other words, if you don’t get what the reference being made actually is, then you aren’t going to understand the deadly art of allusion (kind of in the same way that if I have to explain a joke to you, it stops being funny–which is the topic for another post entirely).

Take, for instance, Elie Wiesel’s Night, which I have been teaching for a few years now. At one point in the book, Wiesel compares himself to Job, the man in the Bible whose faith was tested through what has to be one of the all-time most brutal beat-downs at the hands of a deity. It’s an appropriate reference considering that Wiesel is Jewish and was extremely devout before his time in the camps, and he suffers greatly. But if you don’t know who Job is, then you’re not going to be able to answer the question, “Where’s the allusion in this sentence/passage?” Not that I have anything against walking students through identifying the allusion and then explaining it to them, and not that they absolutely need to know this allusion to completely understand the book. They could read the book and get just as much out of it as someone who knew Job.

Knowing Job just adds another layer to the understanding. Which is how good allusions work. Take for instance, the show Animaniacs, which was a cartoon that aired in the early 1990s. The show had a recurring short called “Goodfeathers,” which featured a group of pigeons who spoke and acted like the mafia men from Marin Scorsese’s film Goodfellas. So much so, in fact, that one of the pigeons would often do a riff on Joe Pesci’s “Funny? I’m funny?” scene. The show premiered when I was about 13 and I hadn’t seen Goodfellas yet I loved this cartoon. When I discovered Goodfellas, the “Goodfeathers” reference clicked and I came to appreciate it on a whole other level (see also: C.M. Burns and C.F. Kane).

If you’re working allusion into your writing and understanding the allusion is key to understanding what you’re writing about, then you are either deliberately alienating part of your audience or you are doing something wrong. Futhermore, “testing” knowledge of allusion should not be done by simple identification questions. Allusion is an excellent gateway to critical thinking about text and by simply saying “You’re wrong because you don’t get the allusion. What are you people … on dope?” serves very little more than to make students feel stupid. A better approach might be to slow down and work through the allusions. Consider doing this:

  • Ask, “What is the allusion to?”
  • If the student doesn’t know what the allusion is to, give them some help and then get them to look into it on their own.
  • Once they’ve figured that out, ask, “Why do you think the author made that allusion?”
  • Finally, ask, “Does this take your understanding of the text to another level? How?”

So there’s your answer, fishbulb. I know it’s not a multiple choice way of doing things; then again, few things in thinking critically about literature lend themselves to the simplicity of multiple choice. But like most English teachers I know, I’d rather have my students leave my class being more well-read and working with them to understand allusion is a great place to start. *naturally, I embedded several allusions in this post. Have fun with them.

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