The man awoke in an unrecognized ancient building. He attempts to leave, only to find doors lock and windows barred. Then, he discovers other people inside as bewildered as he is. They are all being held as prisoners. The only clue is a list of dates on the wall followed by their names. Eventually they are informed that this is to be the date of their trials. However, none have any clue what crime they have committed.
This was the intriguing start to a book, which a high school student and aspiring author divulged to me. She decided to call this first attempt at a novel The Trials. When I responded, “How Kafkaesque,” her blank stare immediately told me that she was not ripping off the plot from Franz Kafka’s famous work. She didn’t comprehend my allusion. That is the difficulty with using this particular technique. The purpose of an allusion is to reference a name so loaded with meaning that it quickly paints a mood for the reader. How can you be sure that readers will comprehend it?
One of the people in a critique group from years ago, wished to allude to the protagonist in Interview with a Vampire simply as a character from an Anne Rice novel. There’s high familiarity with her vampire novel as it was made into a movie. But, it is not the only well known book Anne Rice wrote. A much larger percent of the world is familiar with Dracula as a daylight avoiding vampire, and Dracula is not the only book by Bram Stoker, either. Most of his other novels are lost to obscurity today. Referring to a depressed woman who shunned daylight as resembling Dracula gets the point across to more readers than comparing her to an unspecified a character in a novel by Anne Rice.
A currently popular trend, which has existed from the beginning of novel writing, is to include allusions to famous books with the hopes that the reader will reflect on the book they are reading in the same manner as the more famous one. However, recently I’ve noted YA books that give the character’s opinions of current novels rather than alluding to these works. One of these concerned two college students still holding on to their fondness for Harry Potter books and movies. On the surface, they appeared as cool students and not ones who maintained an immature taste in literature. The other reference was a high school student who preferred early black and white horror flicks to the slick Harry Potter films.
However, neither of these are allusions. Rather they are cultural references. The reader unfamiliar with this fictional teenage wizard may not comprehend the clues they provide about the characters’ personalities. But, clues were not important–rather they served as an excuse to mention a famous series to try to connect to young readers. Even the fans of Harry Potter learn very little about the characters from these references.
If an author wanted to make an illusion to Harry Potter that author might write a sentence like this: “The boy marched straight into the woods at night imagining a little war paint was comparable to Harry Potter’s lightning scar.” The reader would have to realize that the scar gave the boy wizard an enormous amount of protection to understand the foolishness of this other character heading into the dangerous woods after dark. Allusions refer to events and themes found in past literature as they relate to those in the story being told.
When the aspiring teenage author gave me a brief description of her novel in progress, I alluded to Franz Kafka’s work, but it would require her familiarity with it to sense the fearful capriciousness of being sentenced for an unknown crime. It’s important to choose an allusion from the well-known source that has existed in the public memory for the longest time. Although Franz Kafka may not be as well-known as J. K. Rowling among current high school students, that could change. Since the time I was in high school decades ago, students have been assigned to read some of Kafka’s work. That is not true of J.K Rowling after her books were published. These two authors’ notoriety may switch at some point in the future. At least the high school student who discussed her book ideas with me wanted to know how to spell his Kafka. She planned to check the library for any books by him that same day.