Intertextuality means ‘between texts’ and is a field of study in which the relationship between texts is investigated. A text, broadly defined, is any kind of ‘weave’ of elements that tell a story or somehow presents something in possession of constructed aesthetic qualities. A painting can be a ‘text’ and so can a comic book or a film. Very frequently, the texts in question will be literary ones: poems, plays, novels, short stories, Greek myths, verses from the Bible, suras from the Qur’an and so on. In this brief account of intertextuality we will focus on literary forms such as these.
The basic tenet of intertextuality is that texts contain elements of diction, syntax, structures, themes, ideas and plots that can be identified and imitated in other texts. For example, it would be possible to look at the structure of the plot in Homer’s The Odyssey and compose a plot of your own which follows roughly the same development. James Joyce did this with his novel Ulysses (1922) and the Cohen brothers did it with their film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).
One definition of intertextuality is that it is ‘quotation without quotation marks’ (according to Roland Barthes). From this point of view, all literature is intertextual to greater or lesser extents, because the reader will always recognise previous reading experiences whenever they are engrossed in a new work of literature. In this definition of intertextuality, the reader’s experience is more important. While this is definitely something that we need to take into account, we also need to look at what happens when we recognise without doubt one specific work of literature within another. In what follows we will present a couple of examples of intertextuality to see what we can discover.
As with all the other topics we have studied in this module, it is important to keep in mind that applying the correct label to the correct type of category is not the most important thing. What matters is that we can identify and discuss what happens when intertextuality is engaged. In the same vein, it is not of major importance where an instance of intertextuality comes from, what the source might be. What we care about is where it is going!
An interesting aspect of intertextual relationships is that on a basic level they function in exactly the same way as tropes and figurative language. They work by connecting one element (like a novel) with another element (like a poem) to the effect that new denotations, connotations, notions and ideas are formed.
In the context of intertextuality, a reference is an explicit pointer to some external text. In its most commonplace version it is what you will find in a list of works cited at the end of an essay. More interesting examples of references can be found in novels, poems and plays. Even though a reference might be explicit, the reader still needs to be familiar with the object referred to in order to understand what it is doing in its new context.
In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), the protagonist, Huck, finds a copy of Piers Plowman in a family home he is visiting. He does not explain to us what the book is about, but a reader who is familiar with William Langland’s late fourteenth century poem will be aware that it details a moral journey undertaken by its protagonist, in which he grows from ignorance and sin towards grace and salvation. Readers will then understand that this is a mirroring of Huck’s own journey down the Mississippi river. At the same time, the differences between Piers and Huck stand out, because Huck’s relationship to Christianity is very different from the one presented in Langland’s tale.
An allusion is a reference to another work of art, which tends to be local (i.e. of limited extent) and semi-hidden. Allusions don’t tend to name the author or work to which they are referring. Only readers who are in the know will experience the full impact of an allusion. Not only must they know the work in question, but they must know it well enough to recognise traces of it with little assistance.
A simple example of an allusion might be to mention someone who ‘flew too close to the sun’ and not providing any more detail. Some readers know that this must be an allusion to the myth of Daedalus and his son Icarus. Daedalus was a preternaturally skilled craftsman who at one occasion built two sets of wings out of feathers glued together with wax, so that he and his son could escape captivity. Despite being warned not to fly too high, Icarus, naturally excited by his new-won ability, went too close to the sun, the wax melted, his wings disintegrated, and he plummeted to his death in the ocean waves.
References, allusions and elitism
One outcome of endowing a literary work with references and allusions to other works – beyond the purely literary effect – is that it divides its readers into those who get the references and recognise the allusions, and those who don’t. As such, a work will designate one group of readers as an elite in possession of the required cultural capital, and the other group as hopeless plebeians.
It is of course eminently possible to read and enjoy a literary work without getting all the references, and most readers understand when something is an allusion even if they do not get it. The fact that we recognise that it is an allusion is often enough to activate the intertextual effect, and we can always look the allusion or reference up on the Internet.
In any case, the presence of references and allusions in works of literature act as a constant reminder that there is always some classic or other that you haven’t read and that you should really get round to reading soon.
Adaptation is a form of sustained reference to a complete and entire text, but the term is imprecise and contested, in part because it has many variant usages. An adaptation often involves a change of medium (typically a film version of a novel), but it does not have to. An adaptation is usually considered a new version of an older work of art, and needs to be an equivalent of that work, but such a degree of similarity is often unsustainable or impractical.
Moreover, it is difficult to determine how great the degree of similarity needs to be in order for something to be called an adaptation. According to some definitions, Joyce’s Ulysses and the Cohens’ O Brother, Where art Thou? can be considered adaptations of The Odyssey, whilst according to other definitions they will be too different from the source text to warrant that description. Another example: the HBO TV show Game of Thrones started as an adaptation but ended up as something else, when it ran out of source material to use in its last 2-3 seasons. In such cases, it is perhaps better to talk of intertextuality and allusion in a more general sense. The moral is that adaptation is a word which should be used with great caution, if at all.
Other types of intertextuality include appropriation, parody, pastiche, plagiarism and translation, each with their own purpose (satire, humour, renewal, critique, dissemination), but which we need not go into here. Instead, it is about time we ended this part of the general introduction to literature and moved on to conclude and to provide some advice about practical approaches to reading, analysing and writing about Literature.