An allusion is a literary or artistic device that refers to a historical or mythological event or figure. It can also refer to another literary or artistic work. Allusions can ground a work in the time in which it is written or the time in which it is set. The narrator’s reciting of the details surrounding the war and its end are examples of the use of allusion to make the work seem more realistic or authentic. Other examples are the narrator’s mentions of women being granted the right to vote and the passage of the income tax.
In addition, when an allusion is made to a literary or artistic work, the piece in which it appears can take on the themes—or be contrasted to the themes—of the work being alluded to. This latter phenomenon occurs when the narrator mentions The Playboy of the Western World. In that play, the characters are interested in the salacious story of a murder, though they remain untroubled by the moral transgression of the murder itself. Certainly this conundrum is echoed in the narrator’s world. The people around her laugh and sing and hurry off to work (affecting normalcy), carrying on their everyday lives while millions are dying in the war.
A refrain is a term most often used in music, but it can appear in literature as well. In its most basic definition, a refrain is simply a repetition. That repetition is most often a measured and structured device; a chorus in a song is one such example. In literature, a refrain is often a verse, phrase, or quotation, but it can also be a repeating theme or image. In this sense, the images of the slaughter that the narrator witnesses and relates at regular intervals are a sort of refrain. More literally, refrain occurs in ‘‘The First Year of My Life’’ in songs, war cries, and poetry. The nursery song that the narrator’s brother sings is later sung to her by the women in an attempt to stop the baby from crying. The commander’s war cry ‘‘Tout le monde a` la bataille!’’ is repeated on three occasions. Verses from Alan Seeger’s 1917 poem ‘‘I Have a Rendezvous with Death’’ are repeated twice. All of the refrains that appear in the story are based in fact, as are the allusions.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Muriel Spark – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.