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Writing

What Is Intertextuality? How to Apply Literary Inspiration to Your Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 8, 2020 • 3 min read

In the 1960s, literary critic Julia Kristeva posed the idea that intertextual relationships could be found throughout many forms of literature—different texts exist through their relation to prior literary texts—feeding into the idea that no text is truly or uniquely original. The notion of intertextuality posits that everything has some form of influence or borrowing from literary works of the past.

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What Is Intertextuality?

The concept of intertextuality is a literary theory stating all works of literature are a derivation or have been influenced by a previous work of literature. There is deliberate intertextuality, which purposely borrows from texts, and there is latent intertextuality, which is when references occur incidentally—the connection or influence isn’t deliberate—as all written text makes intertextuality possible.

Some intertextual references are exact lines of dialogue or action, while others are more vaguely referenced. The definition of intertextuality includes forms of parody, pastiche, retellings, homage, and allegory. Any work of literature that is involved in the creation of a new text is considered intertextual.

7 Examples of Intertextuality

According to Kristeva, nearly all works contain some form of reference to another work of the past. Below are examples of many famous writings that employ the use of intertextuality:

  1. The main plotline of Disney’s The Lion King is a take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
  2. The structure of James Joyce’s Ulysses is modeled after Homer’s Odyssey.
  3. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series makes use of T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
  4. Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres is a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
  5. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is an intertextual work of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as it includes the wife of a secondary character from the novel as one of its own, and offers an alternative point of view on similar social issues of the prior narrative.
  6. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is an inverted retelling of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
  7. Matt Groenig’s television show The Simpsons uses multiple intertextual references to literature, films, other tv shows, and commercials for its storylines and jokes.
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3 Tips for Using Intertextuality

Intertextuality is a literary device that can be used in a number of different ways within your own work:

  1. Venture outside the genre. You can use works like Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy or John Milton’s Paradise Lost to craft an intertextual work that isn’t a biblical or religion-themed story. Horror can inspire comedy, like for spoofs or parodies, and comedy can inspire drama. Lines of dialogue can be used as titles or inspiration for your work, storylines can be placed in a different time or setting to create a new plot, even text from formal essays or other parodies can be used within your own writing to make it intertextual.
  2. Embrace it. According to some, intertextuality is either deliberate or latent but is completely unavoidable. Every text has been influenced by the countless ones that have come before it. With that in mind, it’s okay to accept that “everything has already been written” and make something of your own.
  3. Don’t plagiarize. You may not need to use quotation marks, but using another author’s work as a basis for your own does not mean copying their writing—or taking credit for their original writing. Intertextuality is about referencing, allusions, satire, and borrowing, not taking whole texts and changing the character names.

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