Usually, it is used to make the reader think one thing is happening, a character believes something or will do something, and then reveal that that’s not the case at all. It’s possible to trick a reader’s senses, including their sense of touch, taste, sound, and sight, if one is able to use effective imagery.
Definition of Illusion
An illusion occurs when the writer chooses to create an image that deceives the reader, making them believe something that’s untrue. Sometimes, this technique is applied through narrative. It might include a dream, vision, or hallucination that misleads the reader or a character experiencing it. It’s possible to use illusions as plot devices that make the protagonist’s life more difficult, perhaps through making them doubt their reality.
While this is occurring, the writer might choose to provide readers with hints about what’s actually going on. It might take some deciphering, but the truth of the protagonist’s condition could be hiding in their visions or hallucinations. In another possible iteration, the writer might choose to write a character who uses illusions to try to trick another character into a specific action. It’s easy to see how this attribute would work well for an antagonist.
One can also consider the word illusion as it applies to the suspension of disbelief. That is, tricking the reader into becoming invested in a world that is fictional and no longer thinking about or doubting what the writer is saying. This is only effective if the writer has created an immersive and convincing reality.
Types of Illusions
- Literal: an allusion that’s different than the object that creates it.
- Cognitive: confuses readers’ and characters’ senses and requires intense concentration to understand and decipher.
- Physiological: refers to a circumstance in which someone sees part of something that isn’t there. This could be a pattern, copies, or any other kind of repetitive hallucination.
Examples of Illusions in Literature
La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats
In this well-loved and very famous Keats poem, the poet focuses on the idea of an illusion. In the summer of 1819, it was written in Wentworth Palace, the home of his friend Charles Armitage Brown. At this point, Keats was already aware that he would die, likely from tuberculosis. It tells the story of unrequited love and what it means to love someone who is in a different social class. Here are the fifth and sixth stanzas:
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan
These lines are a great example of how Keats uses illusion in this poem to encourage the reader to analyze the difference between reality and fantasy. The knight is taken in by the woman’s beauty, and through lines such as the above, the reader has to figure out what’s real and what’s not.
Read more of John Keats’s poetry.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
This haunting contemporary novel takes readers to a dystopian future in which the world has been devastated. The main characters, a father and his son, travel through the United States trying to find enough food to survive. The father suffers from an illness while trying to protect his son, who remains nameless throughout the novel. Here are a few lines that demonstrate McCarthy’s writing:
He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe.
McCarthy’s skillful use go imagery and narrative in this novel create an incredibly believable illusion. Readers are completely transported to this alternate reality.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
This famous, semi-autobiographical novel that details O’Brien’s experiences in Vietnam. It’s also a famous example of metafiction and allows the author to bring the reader in and out of reality. The novel acknowledges itself as a book, breaking into reality in a new way. This can be compelling and confusing. It is similar to the effect Kurt Vonnegut achieves in his famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.
A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.
O’Brien creates what feels like, partially, a memoir. But, on the other hand, readers have to figure out what’s real and what’s illusion or fiction. He also speaks about war in a very self-aware way, something that’s also found in Slaughterhouse-Five and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
Illusion or Allusion?
While these two words are pronounced the same, they are quite different from one another. The first, illusion, is a falsehood, lie, or imagined scenario in which the writer presents something incorrectly to the reader or through a character. It is meant to deceive one’s senses. This can sometimes be frustrating and other times surprising and interesting.
An allusion, on the other hand, is a figure of speech. It’s a reference to something or someone, usually not expanded upon by the writer. Sometimes readers will immediately understand what the allusion is referring to, while other times, it might go completely unnoticed or misunderstood. It can, in some circumstances, take time to decipher what an allusion is connected to and what the writer is trying to convey with it. They can be used in all genres and forms of literature. The various types of allusions include mythological, cultural, religious, literary, and historical.
Related Literary Terms
- Imagery: refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
- Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
- Dichotomy: create conflict between characters, groups, states of being, ideas, and more.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Dilemma: a problem or conflict that has more than one possible solution. There are always important consequences one has to contend with.
- Listen: Illusion or Allusion?
- Watch: What is Allusion?
- Watch: Optical Illusions