Allusions Within New Critical Works

In one of the discussions we had in English class, the issue of the allusions came up. We had been talking about the idea of common knowledge, and how the definition of common knowledge is different for everyone, when the topic of New Criticism came up.The question that had been posed was that, if an Allusion was recognized within a written work, could the work still be considered as a part of New Criticism. And I believe that, in order for a work to be looked at with a New Critical lense, it must not have any allusions whatsoever. 

Firstly, it is important to define exactly what New Criticism is in order to understand the limitations of working with it. According to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literal Terms, New Critics are described as those who treated literary works as “…self-contained and self-referential and thus based their interpretations on elements within the text rather than on external factors…” (287) In simpler terms, this means that those who practice New Criticism view literature as if it exists in a vacuum, where it is not affected by any knowledge of the outside world and simply tells its own story. And allusions are defined in the same book as, “An indirect reference, often to a person, event, statement, theme or work.” (10) Going by these two definitions, an allusion that references some well known source simply cannot be present in order for a work to be viewed with a New Critical lense. In order to make the work isolated, it cannot be influenced by outside sources. And yet, if the reader is even somewhat aware of what is being referenced by the allusion, then their perception of the literature will be altered. In order to keep the work isolated, well known allusions cannot be present. 

However, there is a caveat when it comes to eliminating allusions from New Critical works, and that is the fact that not every person has the same sense of common knowledge. What might be incredibly obvious for one may not be as memorable for another. For example, an article in The Atlantic talks about two Florida dj’s and how they pulled a prank using a lack of common knowledge. According to the article, the radio show hosts claimed that there was ‘dihydrogen monoxide’ in the tap water in the Fort Myers area. What many listeners didn’t realize was that ‘dihydrogen monoxide’ is just the chemical name for water. And due to this lack of knowledge, the panic in Lee County got so bad that utility officials had to make an official statement saying that the water was, in fact, safe to drink. What the two hosts had assumed was common knowledge instead became news that shocked the entire area. The disparity between people’s knowledge can, at times, be quite intense. And this applies to literature too. Since there is no definitie common knowledge that every single person has, not every person will have the same reaction to certain allusions. But even so, I believe that any and all allusions must be removed from a piece in order to be a fully New Critical work.

This belief is encapsulated in the book I Am Not Sidney Poiter, a novel by Percival Everett that we read in english class. In the book, Everett makes several references to the filmography of Sidney Poiter, such as in chapter two, where the main character Not Sidney is arrested and wrongfully convicted simply for being black and later escapes with another prisoner while they are transferring prisons. This series of events roughly mirrors the events of “The Defiant Ones”, a 1958 crime film starring Sidney Poiter that tells the story of two runnaway convicts. However, Everett is careful to never make mention of the fact that these moments within the book are actually allusions to Sidney Poiter’s filmography. And because I knew little about Sidney Poiter when I first began reading the novel, I was unaware of the fact that an allusion was taking place, and instead thought that the plot was going in a new, albeit strangely different direction. I didn’t learn until later on that the entire plot line was ripped from a different source. Had I not know that an allusion was taking place, I would have read the story as an individual piece, and my view would not have been tainted by this specific outside knowledge, which would line up well with New Critical thinking. But this situation most likely won’t apply to every single person who reads I Am Not Sidney Poiter. And in order for the book to match the ideas presented by New Criticism, there would be no allowances for outward references. Therefore, my stance remains; even if an allusion within a work is not understood, as long as it is present, the work cannot be considered with a New Critical lense. 

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