Intertextuality refers to the phenomenon of one text referencing, quoting, or alluding to another text. It is the interplay and interconnectedness between different texts, where the meaning of one text is shaped or influenced by its relationship with other texts. To understand intertextuality, think of the different types of references to series, music, or memes that you might make in everyday conversation. Literary intertextuality is pretty similar to that, except that it is usually kept to more literary references.

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Table of contents

    Intertextual origins

    The term intertextuality has now been broadened to include all types of interrelated media. Originally it was used specifically for literary texts and it is generally accepted that the theory has its origins in early 20th-century linguistics.

    The word intertextual was coined in the 1960s by Julia Kristeva in her analysis of Bakhtin's concepts of Dialogism and Carnival. The term is derived from the Latin word 'intertexto', which translates as 'to intermingle while weaving.' She thought that all texts were 'in conversation' with other texts, and could not be read or understood completely without an understanding of their inter-relatedness.

    Since then, intertextuality has become a staple characteristic of both Postmodern works and analysis. It is worth noting that the practice of creating intertextuality has been around for much longer than the more recently developed theory of intertextuality.

    Postmodernism is a movement that followed and often reacted against Modernism. Postmodernist Literature is generally considered to be Literature published after 1945. Such Literature features intertextuality, subjectivity, non-linear plots, and metafiction.

    Famous Postmodern authors you may have studied already include Arundhathi Roy, Toni Morrison and Ian McEwan.

    Intertextuality definition

    Basically, literary intertextuality is when a text refers to other texts or to its cultural environment. The term also implies that texts do not exist without context. Other than being a theoretical way of reading or interpreting texts, in practice, linking to or referencing other texts also adds additional layers of meaning. These author-created references can be deliberate, accidental, direct (like a quote) or indirect (like an oblique allusion).

    Intertextuality, textual references to other texts, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Intertextuality means texts that reference or allude to other texts. The meaning of one text is shaped or influenced by its relationship with other texts.

    Another way of looking at intertextuality is to see nothing as unique or original anymore. If all texts are made up of previous or co-existing contexts, ideas, or texts, are any texts original?

    Intertextuality seems such a useful term because it foregrounds notions of relationality, interconnectedness, and interdependence in modern cultural life. In the Postmodern epoch, theorists often claim, it is not possible any longer to speak of originality or the uniqueness of the artistic object, be it a painting or novel, since every artistic object is so clearly assembled from bits and pieces of already existent art. - Graham Allen, Intertextuality1

    Do you think that no text can be original anymore? Is everything made up of existing ideas or works?

    Purpose of intertextuality

    An author or poet can use intertextuality deliberately for a variety of reasons. They would probably choose different ways of highlighting intertextuality depending on their intention. They may use references directly or indirectly. They might use a reference to create additional layers of meaning or make a point or place their work within a particular framework.

    A writer could also use a reference to create humour, highlight an inspiration or even create a reinterpretation of an existing work. The reasons and ways to use intertextuality are so varied that it is worth looking at each example to establish why and how the method was used.

    Types and examples of intertextuality

    There are a few levels to potential intertextuality. To start with, there are three main types: obligatory, optional, and accidental. These types deal with the significance, intent, or lack of intent, behind the interrelation, so they are a good place to begin.

    Obligatory intertextuality

    This is when an author or poet deliberately references another text in their work. This can be done in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons, which we will look at. The author intends to make the external references and intends the reader to understand something about the work that they are reading as a result. This would usually happen when the reader both picks up on the reference and understands the other work being referenced. This creates intended layers of meaning that are lost unless the reader is familiar with the other text.

    Obligatory intertextuality: examples

    You are probably familiar with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1599-1601) but you may be less familiar with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor characters from the famous Shakespearean play but major ones in Stoppard’s work.

    Without any knowledge of the original work referenced, the reader’s ability to understand Stoppard’s work would not be possible. Although Stoppard's title is a line taken directly from Hamlet, his play takes a different look at Hamlet, inviting alternative interpretations of the original text.

    Do you think a reader could read and appreciate Stoppard's play without having read Hamlet?

    Optional intertextuality

    Optional intertextuality is a milder kind of interrelatedness. In this case, an author or poet may allude to another text to create another nonessential layer of meaning. If the reader picks up on the reference and knows the other text, it can add to their understanding. The important part is that the reference is not critical to the reader's understanding of the text being read.

    Optional intertextuality: examples

    JK Rowling's Harry Potter series (1997-2007) subtlety alludes to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series (1954-1955). There are several parallels between the young male protagonists, their group of friends who help them achieve goals, and their ageing wizard mentor. Rowling also references J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan (1911), both in theme, characters, and a few lines.

    The main difference is that it is possible to read, understand and appreciate the Harry Potter series without ever having read J.R.R. Tolkien or J.M. Barry’s works at all. The allusion only adds an additional but nonessential meaning, so that the layer of meaning enhances rather than creates the reader's understanding.

    Do you catch obscure references in everyday conversation that slightly change or add to the meaning of what was said? Can people who do not get the reference still understand the overall conversation? How is this similar to types of literary intertextuality?

    Accidental intertextuality

    This third type of intertextuality happens when a reader makes a connection that the author or poet did not intend to make. This can happen when a reader has knowledge of texts that perhaps the author does not, or even when a reader creates links to a certain culture or to their personal experience.

    Accidental intertextuality: examples

    These can take almost any form, so examples are endless and dependent on the reader and their interaction with the text. One person reading Moby Dick (1851) may draw parallels to the biblical story of Jonah and the whale (another man and whale story). Herman Melville’s intention was probably not to link Moby Dick to this particular biblical story.

    Contrast the Moby Dick example with John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952) which is a clear and direct obligatory reference to the biblical story of Cain and Abel. In Steinbeck’s case, the link was deliberate and also necessary to fully understand his novel.

    Do you think that drawing your own parallels or interpretation adds to your enjoyment or understanding of a text?

    Types of intertextual texts

    In intertextuality, there are two main types of text, the hypertextual and the hypotextual.

    The hypertext is the text that the reader is reading. So, for example, this could be Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The hypotext is the text that is being referenced, so in this example it would be William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

    Can you see how the relationship between the hypotext and hypertext depends on the type of intertextuality?

    Intertextual figures

    Generally, there are 7 different figures or devices used to create intertextuality. These are allusion, quotation, calque, plagiarism, translation, pastiche, and parody. The devices create a range of options that cover intent, meaning, and how direct or indirect the intertextuality is.

    QuotationsQuotations are a very direct form of reference and are taken directly ‘as is’ from the original text. Often cited in academic work, these are always obligatory or optional.
    AllusionAn allusion is often a more indirect type of reference but can be used directly too. It is a casual reference to another text and is usually linked to obligatory and accidental intertextuality.
    CalqueA calque is a word for word, direct translation from one language to another that may or may not change the meaning slightly. These are always obligatory or optional.
    PlagiarismPlagiarism is the direct copying or paraphrasing of another text. This is generally more of a literary fault than a device though.
    TranslationTranslation is the conversion of text written in one language into another language while retaining the original’s intent, meaning, and tone. This is usually an example of optional intertextuality. For example, you do not need to understand French to read the English translation of an Emile Zola novel.
    PastichePastiche describes a work done in the style or a combination of styles from a certain movement or era.

    A parody is a deliberately over exaggerated and comical version of an original work. Usually, this is done to highlight absurdities in the original.

    Intertextuality - Key takeaways

    • Intertextuality in the literary sense is the interrelation of texts. It is both a way of creating texts and a modern way of reading texts.

    • You can relate intertextuality in literature to the daily conversations you have and how you reference a series or music to create additional meaning or even shortcuts in conversation.

    • The form that intertextuality takes differs and can include obligatory, optional, and accidental interrelations. These different types affect intent, meaning, and understanding.

    • Intertextuality creates two types of text: the hypertext, and the hypotext. The text being read and the text being referenced.

    • There are 7 main intertextual figures or devices. These are allusion, quotation, calque, plagiarism, translation, pastiche, and parody.

    1. Graham Allan, Intertextuality, Routledge, (2000).

    Frequently Asked Questions about Intertextuality

    What is intertextuality?

    Intertextuality is the Postmodern concept and device that suggests that all texts are related to other texts in some way.

    Is intertextuality a formal technique?

    Intertexuality can be considered a literary device that includes varieties such as obligatory, optional and accidental.

    What are the 7 types of intertextuality?

    There are 7 different figures or devices used to create intertextuality. These are allusion, quotation, calque, plagiarism, translation, pastiche, and parody.

    Why do authors use intertextuality?

    Authors can use intertextuality to create critical or additional meaning, make a point, create humour, or even to reinterpret an original work.

    Who first coined the term intertextuality?

    The word 'intertextual' was used by Julia Kristeva in her analysis of Bakhtin's concepts of Dialogism and Carnival during the 1960s.

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