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Intertextuality in Literature

Sasha Blakeley, Joshua Wimmer
  • Author
    Sasha Blakeley

    Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

  • Instructor
    Joshua Wimmer

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

Explore intertextuality in literature. Learn the definition of intertextuality and its purpose in literature. Discover examples and types of intertextuality. Updated: 10/07/2021

Table of Contents


What Is Intertextuality?

Intertextuality is an important concept to understand when it comes to literary analysis. Essentially, it is the practice whereby authors reference, quote, draw from, or reimagine other literary works in a new text. The intertextuality definition is quite broad, encompassing a wide variety of literary connections. Essentially, any writer who deliberately connects their text to any other literary work is engaging in intertextuality.

The original theory of intertextuality was developed by theorist Julia Kristeva as a way to explain the relationships between texts. Kristeva's theory posits that every literary text is essentially composed of earlier texts. In other words, all literature is fundamentally a conversation, and no literary work stands entirely alone. Kristeva argued that every text is actually an ''intertext'' that exists as an intersection between other literary works. Kristeva's concept of intertextuality is deeper than most contemporary interpretations of intertextuality in media, but it is a compelling one that has been further discussed by other theorists and philosophers.

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  • 0:02 Intertextuality Defined
  • 2:28 Example: Frankenstein
  • 3:29 Example: Ulysses
  • 4:23 Example: South Park
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Purpose of Intertextuality

There are many reasons why authors choose to employ intertextuality in their writing. A particular author's purpose is often indicated by the type of intertextuality that they choose to use in their work. Intertextuality can function as a way to give audiences clues about a work's themes, thesis, or plot. It can also be used to generate humor or to creatively reinterpret the source material. Some authors use intertextuality to deliberately place their work within a particular tradition or to bring attention to the work of another writer. Sometimes, intertextuality can help give audiences a framework that makes it easier to understand a new work through comparison. The purposes of intertextuality are so varied that it would almost be more accurate to suggest that each unique instance of intertextuality has its own unique purpose depending on the needs of the work and the choices of the author.

The White Rabbit is intertextually referenced in The Matrix.

Intertextuality can be found in a wide variety of media.

Types of Intertextuality

There are many different types of intertextuality that can be used in literature. Some are very brief references that some audience members are bound to miss, while others are entire structures for a text that make the initial work's influence impossible to miss. The following is not necessarily an exhaustive list; there are many, many ways to create intertextual relationships between works, including:

Type of Intertextuality Explanation
Allusion An allusion is an indirect reference to another piece of work, often by mentioning something about its main characters, themes, or imagery in a way that most audiences will recognize.
Quotation A quotation is the direct inclusion of words from one text in another text, usually in quotation marks. Quotations can also be used as titles of other works.
Calque Calque is a linguistic term for directly translated loanwords. It is possible to use calque as a form of subtle intertextuality, but the term is more common in linguistics than in literature.
Homage An homage is an explicit celebration of, and extended reference to, another work, writer, or personage. Homages are usually impossible to miss; they are deliberate and highly expressive forms of intertextuality.
Plagiarism Plagiarism is the process by which a writer steals someone else's work and attempts to pass it off as their own. While plagiarism is technically a form of intertextuality, it is heavily frowned upon and is considered to be intellectual and creative dishonesty.
Translation The act of translating a work from one language to another is more than just a technical practice; it is also a creative one that is necessarily intertextual in nature, creating a cultural and linguistic interplay between the two versions of a work.
Pastiche A pastiche is a deliberate stylistic interpretation of another work or type of work. A writer deliberately imitating 19th-century literary voices while writing in the 21st century is creating a pastiche.
Parody Parody is a term for humorous approaches to intertextuality. Parodies often exaggerate and satirize elements of a work to make a point.
Reimagining Some forms of intertextuality create sweeping reimaginings of existing works. Rewriting an existing work from the perspective of a different character, for instance, would fall into this category.

Some works will fall into two or more intertextual categories, while others will defy categorization entirely. Intertextuality can run the gamut from respectful or even reverent references to existing works to references based on mockery.

Intertextuality Examples

There are hundreds of thousands of intertextuality examples in literature; indeed, it would be challenging to find any work that does not include any intertextual reference, either intentional or unintentional. Here, the term ''literature'' is used broadly to refer to all sorts of media: books, poetry, film, television, plays, and even, in some cases, music.

The Matrix (1999)

The film The Matrix has an intertextual relationship with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. This relationship is one of allusion. Morpheus offers to show Neo ''how deep the rabbit hole goes'' if he agrees to learn more about the Matrix. The film also includes mentions of following the white rabbit, which is another allusion to Carroll's work.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Why is intertextuality used?

Different authors have wildly varying reasons for including instances of intertextuality in their works. Some use intertextuality to situate themselves in a particular literary genre. Others use it to pay homage to other works or to parody or mock other works.

What are examples of intertextuality?

There are many examples of intertextuality in literature. Some examples include:

  • The mention of Long John Silver in Peter Pan is an intertextual allusion to Treasure Island.
  • Allusions to Moby-Dick in Railsea by China Miéville.
  • Films like 10 Things I Hate About You, which is a modern reimagining of The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare.

How do you define intertextuality?

Intertextuality refers to any connection between two or more pieces of media. These connections can include allusions, quotations, parody, translation, and many other kinds of intertextuality that connect literary works.

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