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Intertextuality is a feature of a text that references another text. It reflects upon the latter and uses it as a reference for the new written work.

Intertextuality draws on style, rhetoric, and ideologies employed in the original. For instance, the writer might choose to retell an old story in a new way or take ideas from someone’s work and utilize them while acknowledging their source. It can be used in stories, songs, novels, philosophical and academic works, as well as the visual arts. 

Intertextuality pronunciation: in-terr-text-yoo-a-lih-tee

Intertextuality definition and examples


Definition of Intertextuality

Intertextuality is a commonly studied feature of literature. It refers to the fact that one text emerges from the next. This might be due to literary movements’ progression or a writer’s conscious choice to refer to another writer’s creation. The term encompasses the broad array of ways that texts are inspired by one another.  Sometimes it occurs purposefully, while other times, the writer creates an example of intertextuality accidentally. 

Depending on how a writer uses it, it may be more or less effective for a particular reader. Some, when the connections are clearly established and conveyed, can be quite compelling. While at other times, readers might miss a purposeful connection between two literary works or the work and a broader movement. 

The term was first coined and used by Julia Kristeva in the 1960s. It comes from the Latin “intertexto,” meaning “to intermingle while weaving.” This makes a great deal of sense considering how literary themes, ideas, styles, and rhetorical devices are passed down throughout the ages and genres of literature. It should also be noted that intertextuality applies to everything from advertising to visual arts and songs. 


Examples of Intertextuality in Literature 

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis 

This famous children’s novel was inspired by the story of Christ’s crucifixion as well as broader narratives from the Bible. Despite this, readers often enjoy the entire series of books without realizing the intense connections Lewis included in his novel. Lewis uses the story of Christ’s crucifixion and uses it to define Aslan and other characters. Here is a famous quote from the novel: 

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”

“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.

“Are -are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

The role Aslan plays in the children’s lives is quite clearly demonstrated in these lines. 

Explore C.S. Lewis’s poetry.


East of Eden by John Steinbeck 

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is an American classic. It was published in 1952 and was considered by Steinbeck to be his masterpiece. When speaking about his novel, he said that it contains “everything in it I have been able o learn about my craft or profession in all these years.” It focuses on two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, and was inspired by the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. Here are a few lines from the novel that make this example of intertextuality: 

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.

Steinbeck does not try to hide his allusions to the Bible in this passage. But, due to the widespread knowledge in regard to that story, it’s likely that any reader would’ve understood Steinbeck’s references even if the connections weren’t as clear. While mentioning the story directly, Steinbeck also uses two characters, Cal and Aron, as contemporary versions of Cain and Abel. 


Lord of the Flies by William Golding 

Golding’s best-known novel, The Lord of the Flies, contains a good example of intertextuality through its references to Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. But, rather than tell a lighthearted story about a group’s love of nature and the island, he transforms it into something else entirely. Here is a famous quote from the novel: 

Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.

It focuses on the violence at the heart of human existence and the cruelty one person can inflict on another, even when they’re children.


Why Do Writers Use Intertextuality? 

Intertextuality is an important part of every story, novel, poem, play, and other literary work ever written. It refers to the elements of the text that were inspired by previous texts. Writers use intertextuality on purpose and on accident. One can’t help but be inspired by everything they’ve ever read in life and channel that into whatever they’re writing. This might be a specific style of narrative, a type of character development, the use of rhetorical devices, and more.

When used on purpose, writers are seeking to connect their work to others they admire or were inspired by in another way. Readers will gain the best, all-around picture of what intertextuality is by reading as much as possible from as many different genres as they can find. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Prologue: the opening to a story that comes before the first page or chapter. It is used to establish context or to provide necessary details.
  • Symbolism: the use of symbols to represent ideas or meanings. They are imbued with certain qualities, often only interpretable through context.
  • Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
  • Anachronism: an error in the timeline or chronology of a piece of literature. This can be a purposeful or accidental error.


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