Literary Allusions

Literary Allusions

According to the Random House Dictionary, an allusion is “a passing or casual reference, either directly or by implication.” It is a common practice in literature to make allusions to a variety of sources. The following is a list of allusions to literary characters, places, and events, and phenomena.

  • Babbitt: a self-satisfied person concerned chiefly with business and middle-class ideals like material success; a member of the American working class whose unthinking attachment to its business and social ideals is such to make him a model of narrow-mindedness and self-satisfaction ; after George F. Babbitt, the main character in the novel Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis.
  • Boswell: James Boswell (1740–95) is best known for his 1791 book The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., considered by many to be the greatest English-language biography ever written. His name is now applied to any devoted biographer. In one story, Sherlock Holmes refers to Watson as his Boswell. 
  • Brobdingnagian: gigantic, enormous, on a large scale, enlarged ; after Brobdingnag, the land of giants visited by Gullivar in Gullivar’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift.
  • Bumble: to speak or behave clumsily or faltering, to make a humming or droning sound; Middle English bomblem; a clumsy religious figure (a beadle) in a work of literature.
  • Cinderella: one who gains affluence or recognition after obscurity and neglect, a person or thing whose beauty or worth remains unrecognized; after the fairy-tale heroine who escapes form a life of drudgery through the intervention of a fairy godmother and marries a handsome prince.
  • Don Juan: a libertine, profligate, a man obsessed with seducing women ; after Don Juan, the legendary 14th century Spanish nobleman and libertine.
  • Don Quixote: someone overly idealistic to the point of having impossible dreams; from the crazed and impoverished Spanish noble who sets out to revive the glory of knighthood, romanticized in the musical The Man of La Mancha based on the story by Cervantes.
  • Falstaffian: full of wit and bawdy humor; after Falstaff, a fat, sensual, boastful, and mendacious knight.
  • Frankenstein: Anything that threatens or destroys its creator; from.the young scientist in Mary Shelley’s novel of this name, who creates a monster that eventually destroys him.
  • Friday: A faithful and willing attendant, ready to turn his hand to anything; from the young savage found by Robinson Crusoe on a Friday, and kept as his servant and companion on the desert island.
  • Galahad: A pure and noble man with limited ambition; in the legends of King Arthur, the purest and most virtuous knight of the Round Table, the only knight to find the Holy Grail.
  • Jekyll and Hyde: A capricious person with two sides to his/her personality; from a character in the famous novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde who had more than one personality, a split personality (one good and one evil).
  • Lilliputian: descriptive of a very small person or of something diminutive, trivial or petty; after the Lilliputians, tiny people in Gullivar’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.
  • Little Lord Fauntleroy: refers either to a certain type of children’s clothing or to a beautiful, but pampered and effeminate small boy; from a work by Frances H. Burnett, the main character, seven-year-old Cedric Errol, was a striking figure, dressed in black velvet with a lace collar and yellow curls.
  • Lolita: In Vladamir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Lolita, the adult narrator is infatuated by the 12-year-old title character. While the original Lolita was described as a rather plain child who was unfortunate in becoming an object of obsession, the name has become a term for a sexually precocious adolescent girl. The tabloids called Amy Fisher the “Long Island Lolita.”
  • Lothario: used to describe a man whose chief interest is seducing a woman; from the play The Fair Penitent by Nicholas Rowe, the main character and the seducer.
  • Malapropism: The usually unintentional humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase, especially the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended, but ludicrously wrong in context: Example: polo bears. Mrs. Malaprop was a character noted for her misuse of words in R. B. Sheridan’s comedy The Rivals.
  • Milquetoast: The Timid Soul, a one-panel newspaper comic by H.T. Webster, made its first appearance in the New York World in 1924. Its main character was a timid, soft-spoken, easily dominated man named Caspar Milquetoast. His name has come to be used for anybody who’s a complete wimp. His neighbor borrowed all his tools months ago, but that milquetoast is too timid to ask for them back. 
  • Oedipus Complex: In Greek legend—notably dramatized in Oedipus Rex, by the Greek playwright Sophocles—Oedipus unwittingly carries out his destiny of killing his father and marrying his mother. Sigmund Freud coined the term “Oedipus complex,” referring to a stage in which someone is attracted to their parent of the opposite sex, and sees their parent of the same sex as a rival. (Usually, it refers to a son’s desire toward his mother; a daughter’s attraction to her father is sometimes called an Electra complex.) The movie featured a mama’s boy with an Oedipus complex who sought revenge on his no-good father. 
  • Panglossian: blindly or misleadingly optimistic; after Dr. Pangloss in Candide by Voltaire, a pedantic old.
  • Peter Pan: Peter Pan, the protagonist of a 1904 play and 1911 book by J. M. Barrie, is famously a boy who refused to ever grow up. These days, an adult who acts immaturely is sometimes said to be suffering from “Peter Pan syndrome.” Let him fix his own cocoa; you don’t need to indulge his Peter Pan syndrome by mothering him. 
  • Pickwickian: humorous, sometimes derogatory; from Samuel Pickwick, a character in Charles Dickens’.
  • Pollyanna: The title character of Pollyanna, a 1913 novel by Eleanor Porter, was a poor girl faced with difficult obstacles who nevertheless managed to stay relentlessly upbeat. While the original Pollyanna was well aware of her challenges but chose to play the “Glad Game” of finding the silver lining in every dark cloud, the name is now applied to somebody who is blindly optimistic, or overly upbeat out of naïveté. “She’s such a Pollyanna,” grumbled Mary Anne, “she thinks the IRS auditor is calling to make sure they don’t owe her any money.”
  • Pooh-bah: a pompous, ostentatious official, especially one who, holding many offices, fulfills none of them, a person who holds high office.
  • Quixotic: having foolish and impractical ideas of honor, or schemes for the general good; after Don Quixote, a half-crazy reformer and knight of the supposed distressed.
  • Redrum: "Murder" spelt backwards, redrum is a word used in the novel The Shining by Stephen King. It works on many other levels, being suggestive of bloodshed, wrath, inebriation, violence, a force that consumes people’s lives like some satisfying drink, and something used to subdue the Native American tribes.
  • Rodomontade: bluster and boasting, to boast (rodomontading or rodomontaded); from Rodomont, a brave, but braggart knight in Bojardo’s Orlando Inamorato; King of Sarza or Algiers, son of Ulteus, and commander of both horse and foot n the Saracen Army.
  • Room 101: Room 101 is a place introduced in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. It is a torture chamber in the Ministry of Love in which the Party attempts to subject a prisoner to his or her own worst nightmare, fear or phobia. “You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.” Room 101 has come to represent one’s worst nightmare.
  • Scrooge: a bitter and/or greedy person; from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, an elderly stingy miser who is given a reality check by 3 visiting ghosts.
  • Simon Legree: a harsh, cruel, or demanding person in authority, such as an employer or officer that acts in this manner ; from Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Ward, the brutal slave overseer.
  • Svengali: Trilby, a 1894 novel by George Du Maurier, features a hypnotist named Svengali who dominates the title character while making her a musical star. Somebody who controls somebody else’s career for his own ends is now called a Svengali. Some felt that the Svengali behind the reality TV show locked the winner into an unfairly restrictive contract.
  • Tartuffe: hypocrite or someone who is hypocritical; central character in a comedy by Moliere produced in 1667; Moliere was famous for his hypocritical piety
  • Uncle Tom: someone thought to have the timid service attitude like that of a slave to his owner; from the humble, pious, long-suffering Negro slave in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by abolitionist writer Harriet Beecher Stowe.
  • Uriah Heep: a fawning toadie, an obsequious person; from a character in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (1849-50).
  • Yahoo: a boorish, crass, or stupid person; from a member of a race of brutes in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist