Intertextuality in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 Intertextuality Defined
  • 2:28 Example: Frankenstein
  • 3:29 Example: Ulysses
  • 4:23 Example: South Park
  • 5:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Have you ever read something that you know you've seen somewhere before? Some people might explain this as 'intertextuality,' and they wouldn't be wrong. Find out more about this idea that goes much deeper than literary deja-vu in this lesson!

Reading Between the Lines: Intertextuality Defined

As you might've already figured out from the name, the term intertextuality is now often used to describe the complex relationships that exist between works of literature. Originally, though, it was intended to mean much more. Literary theorist Julia Kristeva believed that there is a cohesive force in literature that connects all the various traditions, past and present. She gave that force a name in 1966 when she devised her theory of intertextuality.

For Kristeva, this concept concerns much more than simply identifying literary references or inspirations. Rather, the idea of intertextuality is an expression of the complicated dependence of literary works on all the literature that has come before them. To put it another way, people share a wide variety of experiences in literature, and intertextuality occurs where authors use these shared experiences to communicate their ideas with their audiences. Therefore, perhaps the best definition of intertextuality would be the use of complex literary relationships as a means of communication.

There are several relationships that authors depend on to communicate in this way. Among the most common and effective of these are:

  • Allusion - A generally implied reference to characters, scenes, plot elements, etc. that appear in another work. For instance, Morpheus's promise to Neo in The Matrix to show him 'how deep the rabbit hole goes' is an allusion to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
  • Pastiche - Related to the Italian word for 'paste,' this is a collage of words, phrases, or entire passages from one or more other authors that creates a new literary work. The more elaborate pastiche will usually incorporate elements of plot, theme, style, and even character development. The Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid is actually a giant pastiche of hundreds of earlier Greco-Roman myths!
  • Parody - Very similar in form to the pastiche, the parody re-appropriates the work of others, but for the purpose of poking fun rather than praising. Many of 'Weird' Al Yankovic's songs are parodies of the work of other popular artists.

Example of Intertextuality: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

Let's take a look at these relationships in action in order to get a better idea of how they contribute to the notion of intertextuality.

Although the subtitle has been dropped from most modern editions, the allusive qualities of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, is a the horror novel by Mary Shelley, still remain. The reference here to the Titan Prometheus relies on centuries of interpretation through Greek myth and drama. Often seen as symbolizing the danger present when human knowledge oversteps its boundaries, Prometheus and what he represents are reflected in the product of Victor Frankenstein's ghastly experiments.

Even with the subtitle omitted, the reader is still able to draw on the thematic parallels Shelley includes (i.e. manipulation of nature). Nevertheless, as long as it's there, the allusion can help provide a shared viewpoint from which to examine the unfolding plot.

Example of Intertextuality: Ulysses

Starting with its title (the Latin name of Odysseus), Ulysses, an example of modernist fiction by James Joyce, shares a richly intertextual relationship with Homer's epic poem the Odyssey. Joyce's work is, in fact, a highly intricate pastiche of its Greek forerunner, from how it's organized to chapter headings to characters and their relationships to entire plot lines.

Although so much is shared, Joyce is still able to produce his own work distinct from that of Homer. This is because he adapts the framework and other elements of Odysseus' homeward journey with his own voice and style, along with a wealth of other inspirations not available to the Greek poet. What he creates is a chronicle of all the journeys we take through our lives as human beings told through experiences shared between his characters and Odysseus and his family.

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