Definition of Intertextuality

Intertextuality is the way that one text influences another. This can be a direct borrowing such as a quotation or plagiarism, or slightly more indirect such as parody, pastiche, allusion, or translation. The function and effectiveness of intertextuality can often depend quite a bit on the reader’s prior knowledge and understanding before reading the secondary text; parodies and allusions depend on the reader knowing what is being parodied or alluded to. However, there also are many examples of intertextuality that are either accidental on the part of the author or optional, in the sense that the reader is not required to understand the similarities between texts to fully grasp the significance of the secondary text.

The definition of intertextuality was created by the French semiotician Julia Kristeva in the 1960s. She created the term from the Latin word intertexto, which means “to intermingle while weaving.” Kristeva argued that all works of literature being produced contemporarily are intertextual with the works that came before it. As she stated, “[A]ny text,” she argues, “is constructed of a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another.”

Common Examples of Intertextuality

We use different examples of intertextuality frequently in common speech, such as allusions like the following:

  • He was lying so obviously, you could almost see his nose growing.
  • He’s asking her to the prom. It’s like a happy version of Romeo and Juliet.
  • It’s hard being an adult! Peter Pan had the right idea.

The concept of intertextuality can also be expanded to music, film, advertising, and so on in the way that everything produced now is influenced by what came before. References to pop culture in advertising, films that are made from books, and diss tracks in rap can all be considered intertextual, though they are not strictly texts.

Significance of Intertextuality in Literature

As Kristeva wrote, any text can be considered a work of intertextuality because it builds on the structures that existed before it. There are countless examples of authors borrowing from the Bible and from Shakespeare, from titles (William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses and The Sound and the Fury) to story lines (John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres). However, Kristeva’s point was more profound than examples of authors knowingly and directly borrowing themes, names, plot lines. Her argument was that all systems of signifying, from the meaning of body language to the structure of a novel, are predicated upon the systems of signifying that came before. A single novel or poem can never be considered independent of the system of meanings in which it relays its message; indeed, each new work of literature transforms and displaces discourse which predated it.

Examples of Intertextuality in Literature

Example #1

Those who have insinuated that Menard devoted his life to writing a contemporary Quixote besmirch his illustrious memory. Pierre Menard did not want to compose another Quixote, which surely is easy enough—he wanted to compose the Quixote. Nor, surely, need one have to say that his goal was never a mechanical transcription of the original; he had no intention of copying it. His admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.

(“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” by Jorge Borges)

Borges’s short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” can be considered an aesthetic exploration of intertextuality, and contains intertextuality on multiple levels. The main idea is that an author named Pierre Menard is reconstructing Cervantes’s novel Don Quixote word by word. He is not translating it, not updating it, but instead writing it again. Menard—and, ultimately, Borges—argues that the act of writing the Quixote story again, even word for word, creates a new text. Borges uses intertextuality by assuming the reader understands the importance of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, though the reader does not have to have actually read that novel.

Example #2

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

(Beowulf, as translated by Seamus Heaney)

Beowulf is an interesting example of intertextuality because the monster, Grendel, is said to be a descendant of the Biblical figure of Cain. The first Beowulf poet would probably have assumed his reader would have understood this allusion and, indeed, know a great deal about the Bible stories. Our contemporary reading of Beowulf is necessarily intertextual as well because the original poem was written in Old English, which is unintelligible to Modern English speakers. Seamus Heaney used the original text to produce his translation, of course, but his resulting work is his own creation. In the introduction to the new text, Heaney explains many choices he made, including how he decided to translate the first word of the text, “Hwaet!” and “So,” instead of choices other translators made such as “Listen,” “Lo,” and “Attend.”

Example #3

“Even God can have a preference, can he? Let’s suppose God liked lamb better than vegetables. I think I do myself. Cain brought him a bunch of carrots maybe. And God said, ‘I don’t like this. Try again. Bring me something I like and I’ll set you up alongside your brother.’ But Cain got mad. His feelings were hurt. And when a man’s feelings are hurt he wants to strike at something, and Abel was in the way of his anger.”

(East of Eden by John Steinbeck)

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is another work of literature based on the story of Biblical story of Cain and Abel. Steinbeck makes this allusion abundantly clear, as proven by the excerpt above. Steinbeck both references the story directly, and also reworks the story through his contemporary characters of Cal and Aron.

Example #4

CLAUDIUS: Welcome, dear Rosencrantz… (he raises a hand at GUIL while
ROS bows – GUIL bows late and hurriedly.)… and Guildenstern.
(He raises a hand at ROS while GUIL bows to him – ROS is still straightening up from his previous bow and
half way up he bows down again. With his head down, he twists to look at GUIL, who is on the way up.)
Moreover that we did much long to see you,
The need we have to use you did provoke
Our hasty sanding.
(ROS and GUIL still adjusting their clothing for CLAUDIUS’s presence.)

(Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard)

Tom Stoppard’s absurdist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is an excellent intertextuality example, because Stoppard rewrites Shakespeare’s Hamlet story from the point of view of two previously unimportant characters (note that Shakespeare did not create Hamlet from scratch, but instead based it on a legend of Amleth—more intertextuality). For the most part, Stoppard composes his own lines, but at times lifts text directly from Shakespeare’s version. In a humorous way, the above excerpt contains the exact speech from Claudius to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, yet with Stoppard’s added stage notes. A reader would be required to at least know something about Shakespeare’s Hamlet to understand the purpose of Stoppard’s commentary on it.

Example #5

After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.

(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling)

In a moment of subtle intertextuality, the mentor figure of Dumbledore tells Harry Potter not to pity a dying wizard. The wizard in question has been living for hundreds of years due to the “sorcerer’s stone,” and is not afraid of death. J.K. Rowling is hinting back at the line in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, who once uttered, “to die would be an awfully big adventure.” There are themes in common between these two fantasy stories of Harry Potter and Peter Pan, yet the reader does not need to pick up on the influence to J.M. Barrie’s work to appreciate J.K. Rowling’s work. J.K. Rowling also borrowed from other sources, such as from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and from the horrors of real-life Nazi Germany, yet once again the reader can appreciate the story without thinking about its influences.

Test Your Knowledge of Intertextuality

1. Which of the following statements is the best intertextuality definition?
A. The relationship between texts.
B. Allusions from one text to another.
C. The translation of a text into a different language.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following would not be an example of intertextuality?
A. A translation of one work into a different language.
B. A poetic homage to an earlier writer by adopting that writer’s theme and tone.
C. The main characters of two unrelated works coincidentally both named Bob.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following statements is not an example of intertextuality in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead?
A. Tom Stoppard used the same character names as in Shakespeare’s original play.
B. The Disney movie The Lion King is also based somewhat on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
C. Parts of the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead are exact quotes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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