Allusion is the literary device of referencing famous people, places, things, or other works-such as a novel, poem, play, song, or piece of art—with the expectation that the reader will understand the reference. While readers may have to educate themselves in order to understand the full meaning of allusions made in texts written in previous eras, it is assumed that contemporaries of the author would be able to discern such references. The use of allusion is particularly important in historical fiction, such as The Secret Life of Bees, in which a modern author chooses a particular historical time period as the setting of a novel, for either educational or entertainment purposes.
Great literature is typically considered as such because it has universal themes that transcend generations, or even centuries. But historical fiction begs its readers not only to learn from these universal themes, but also to immerse themselves in the chosen time period. Why? What could we possibly learn from a storyline set in a time period so foreign to us? Why is it important that the story of Lily Owens be set in 1964, or that the first page of the novel begins the week of the passing of the Voting Rights Act? And if it is important, how does Sue Monk Kidd so effectively make her readers feel as if they too were walking around in that sweltering South Carolina summer that occurred more than forty five years ago?
Author Sue Monk Kidd
The answer, of course, is allusion. Kidd writes with such
conscientious attention to the detail of her setting that readers are practically teleported to the time period. We can see it in the description of the landscape—both natural and manmade. We
feel it in the oppressive heat experienced by characters cooling themselves with paper fans decades before air conditioning
became a common household convenience. We taste the foods
of both the era and the region, as Kidd weaves specific product names into vivid descriptions of southern culinary traditions. We can hear the sounds of the sixties—from loud automobiles to the television shows people are watching and the music that streams from their radios. We can even smell the particular perfumes, colognes, and soaps that Lily refers to when she describes people!
As we explore this novel through a variety of lenses, pay attention to the types of allusions Kidd employs and how they influence your reading of the story. How do they make us understand certain characters, specific themes, or social contexts? When you come across a particular reference with which you are familiar, ask yourself why it specifically was included. What impact would an alternate choice have had on the reader‟s understanding of the scene or the implicit character development occurring? Pay attention also to the types of allusions utilized in this novel. I will survey some of them here, but it will be your responsibility to determine the significance and historical context of those allusions as you read. Remember: good readers take the time to research and fully understand the topics addressed and alluded to in a work. A friend of mine once told me that if you don‟t read,
you miss half the jokes in life. In the same light, if you don‟t read carefully, you risk missing the overall meaning of a story.
This novel is full of allusions to classic pieces of literature and authors established in the canon. Why are they mentioned? How can knowing what Lily Owens is reading help us understand who she is, her background, what she thinks about, and how she interprets the world around her? Lily is inspired by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she discusses how his philosophies influence her own. This has no meaning if we don‟t know at least a little about his work and Transcendentalism. She mentions her love of another
Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, for whom
her passion was only surpassed by Shakespeare (57). I
doubt there are many readers who wouldn‟t...
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