For the last few weeks, I have been doing a project on how biblical and classical allusions can add meaning to a text. Did a bunch of research, wrote a story that effectively used allusions, and then I did a forty minute presentation on what I learned and what I created to some of my classmates.
Here’s a brief summary of allusion:
- Allusions can allow the reader to better understand the motivation of a character
- Allusions can create a setting in much fewer words than just describing it would
- Allusions can foreshadow future events
- Allusions can augment meaning
And in order to do those things, two main techniques of allusion are used:
- Verbal allusions
- Thematic parallels
Where verbal allusions are direct copies of the language from another text (generally descriptions), and thematic parallels are, quite simply, parallels drawn between characters or themes in two different works.
Alright? Let’s continue:
In order to add depth to a text, allusions rely entirely on the reader’s preconceptions. That is, if I allude to the Bible, and the reader has never read the Bible, then no additional meaning is added. However, If I draw a parallel between my main character and Jesus, and the reader is a devout Catholic, then they will thus have a much deeper appreciation for the main character.
The first thing I said that allusions do is allow the reader to better understand the motivation of a character. This technique is used frequently in In The Time of the Butterflies, a book by Julia Alvarez about the Mirabal Sisters, four revolutionaries in the Dominican republic. This book alternates perspectives, each chapter being told by a different sister. Patria, the oldest sister is very religious, and frequently alludes to the Bible. In one section, Patria’s son, Nelson, decides to join the revolution. After this happens, Patria thinks:
“We knelt there in that hot little rectory and we prayed to the Virgencita. She had clung to Jesus until He told her straight out: ‘Mama–I have to be about my father’s business.’ And she had to let Him go, but it broke her heart because though He was God, he was still her boy” (154).
This is an allusion to Luke 2: 41-49:
“Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.’
‘Why were you searching for me?’ he asked. ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?'”
While the exact text of the Bible quote here is not that important, the fact that the allusion exists is very important, both for understanding this section and for understanding Patria’s character as a whole. It is clear, both here and in other parts of In the Time of the Butterflies, that there is a very intentional parallel between Mary and Patria. Based on preconceptions from the Bible, we know that Mary is a very motherly figure, and this can thus be applied to Patria. Knowing that children are extremely important to Patria allows the reader to understand her motivation and actions much better, and “get” her as a character.
The next big thing I said allusion could do was create a setting with much fewer words. I will talk much less on this one, because it isn’t as applicable to my eventual point, but it is still really cool and deserves a mention. Again, this relies on preconceptions the reader may have. Describing something as an ‘Eden’ wouldn’t mean anything without the Bible (ignoring the fact that Eden has worked itself into common speech), but with this prior knowledge, you can now consider the described place a lush green paradise etc. Another, more interesting side effect of this is that if you describe someplace as an Eden, then you are not only showing that that is paradise, but also that the people who live there are above sin. As Eden was only accessible to humans before the original sin, an accessible Eden thus shows a lack of sin. Escaping, or trying to escape, to an Eden is a motif in many dystopian novels. As we know that Edens are sinless, escaping into an Eden shows an absolution of sin, and is a very deliberate choice made by the author. The last point – augmentation of meaning – is what that absolution generally falls under, but it is interesting a small Allusion can fill so many categories.
The third point was that allusions can foreshadow future events. I’m going to use another example from In the Time of the Butterflies here, because I read it recently. When reading In the Time of the Butterflies, it is almost immediately made clear that of the four sisters, three of them martyred themselves, and only one survived the revolution. In fact, before the book even starts, you get to see the date they all died, November 25, 1960. As the book draws to a close, the reader starts to look for when and where their inevitable deaths are going to happen. Then, in the second to last chapter, Minerva (the second youngest sister) says the following:
“Up ahead were three white crosses marking casualties from a recent accident” (291).
Just that. Nothing especially momentous or foreboding – just one line of text commenting on how the road was treacherous. Now, use your brain. Crosses have been used to mark graves, as they were in this passage, for some time now. However, the origin of the cross as a holy symbol is, quite simply, the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus dies, perhaps even allows himself to be murdered in order to absolve humanity of their sins. Mark 10: 45 says:
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
i.e. Jesus martyred himself for a far greater cause.
In In the Time of the Butterflies, we have a situation where three of the four sisters martyr themselves for a greater cause. We see three white crosses, and we know that Jesus martyred himself upon a cross. Using our knowledge of the Bible, we can then conclude that three of the sisters will die soon, and it is at this exact point where they will die. The Epilogue concerns the return past this spot of the sisters, and it is indeed here where they die, showing effective foreshadowing through the use of allusion.
Before I get to the last main use of allusion, I would like to go on a brief little tangent.
What is meaning?
As far as I’m concerned, meaning is the synthesis of raw data. Things that are interesting are meanings drawn from seemingly unrelated bits of data, or things which we would not have synthesized in the way somebody else did. Obviously there are more types of interesting things than just those with meanings, but for a statement – a thesis – to be interesting and to capture our interest, it must be something we as the reader would not normally connect. The fourth and final thing that I said allusion did was augment meaning in a text. The way this is generally done is through the use of huge, sweeping thematic parallels between two works. The story I wrote was about a character named Jonah. It was written in five sections, each of the first four being based on a story from the Bible, and the fifth tying together the story as a whole. The overarching plot of the story was based off of the parable of the prodigal son. If you are not familiar with that, it is from Luke 15: 11-32:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
A lot of people, upon reading this parable, feel empathy for the child left at home. The child who did nothing wrong, in fact, who acted righteously, and was loved less because of it. That is not the point of this story. The parable of the prodigal son is a story of redemption and of forgiveness. The prodigal son is not loved more because he was a sinner, but because he made the much harder choice – to admit that he was wrong, and to return back to being right again. This is the same theme that my story has.
Here’s another story. Jonah, the namesake of my main character, is best known for being eaten by a very large fish. What is less well known is that Jesus states that the only sign he will give nonbelievers is the sign of Jonah. At first, this may seem cryptic, but a greater examination of the story of Jonah shows that it is actually referring to Jesus’ crucifixion and rebirth. In the story of Jonah, Jonah is thrown off of a ship and placed into a situation where he could very well have died. After appealing to God, he is swallowed whole by a fish, where he is kept safe for three days until he is spat back ashore. At this point, Jonah realizes that he was a bad person, and that he does need to do his original task (he was on the boat to evade a task God had given him). In the crucifixion, Jesus is murdered, kept safe for three days, and then reborn. When stated this way, the parallels are obvious. Being hurled off a boat is death. Being eaten by a whale is being placed in a cave. Landing ashore again is come back alive.
One of the main points of conflict in my story is that Jonah is a horrible drunk near the beginning – even going as far as to say alcohol is his lifeblood. After the first day, he is placed into forced sobriety by a big bear of a man who wishes to help him. On the third day of his sobriety, he realizes he has been in the wrong the entire time, and needs to go home to make amends. Let me summarize this. His lifeblood is cut off, he is kept safe for three days, and he comes to a revelation. He dies, he is kept safe for three days, and he is reborn. He is thrown off a ship, he is kept safe for three days, and he is placed back on firm ground.
This is why his name is Jonah. It is not simply an allusion to the story of Jonah and the whale, it shows that he goes through a rebirth. The rebirth falls into the plot of the whole story, that of forgiveness, a huge thematic connection to the parable of the prodigal son. I stated earlier that meaning is merely the synthesis of information. Having layers of meaning, then, is having an obvious synthesis and a deeper, more cerebral synthesis. You could read my story and take it at face value. At that level it is just a tale. At the next level down, it unfolds into something far greater. By adding stories that I allude to into your pile of raw data to synthesize, you grow a greater meaning. When you realize that the story is also a commentary on alcoholism and the three day hump, you add even more data. Through synthesis, you draw connections between seemingly completely unrelated things and arrive at a meaning.
Everyone has different stockpiles of data they start with. They could have an uncle named Jonah, an experience with alcoholism, a trip to the location of the book, anything. All of these things affect the ultimate meaning of a text. Allusions just add more data to your collection and direct your thoughts towards that additional data. I mentioned earlier that allusions depend on preconceptions. This is only partially true:
Meaning depends on preconceptions, and allusion just gives you a few more preconceptions to work with.