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Have you ever paused halfway through a novel or film, and thought to yourself: Something about this feels very familiar. Maybe it’s not smack-you-in-the-face obvious, but something about the themes, characters, or maybe even certain quotes just seems reminiscent of other works you’ve come across before.

For me, this feeling hit when I was halfway through Heart of Darkness in high school, and I started thinking: Reading this feels a lot like watching Apocalypse Now.

Of course, a quick Google search would have told me that Apocalypse Now is in fact partially based on Conrad’s novel. But the point is that I picked up on this connection without that prior knowledge (and it’s not like the setting, premise, or much of the plot details were exactly the same).

This literary déjà vu is known as intertextuality, and in this post, we’ll explain where that familiarity comes from, why it’s important in literature, and why you can’t really avoid it.

Definition of Intertextuality

The theory of intertextuality states that all works of literature are influenced in some way by previous works; no text is completely unique or original. The same can be said about song lyrics, compositions, and pretty much all works of art or inventions.

Literary critic and philosopher Julia Kristeva first coined the term “intertextuality” in the 1960s to describe the interconnection between similar or related texts, and how those connections shape an audience’s interpretations, whether they realize it or not. (Many times the writer isn’t even aware of the connection!)

While the theory is relatively new, the device itself is not. Examples can be found even in the Bible, as New Testament passages quote from and refer to Old Testament passages. But intertextuality encompasses much more than just direct quotes—it can include everything from translation, to allegory, allusion, or parody.

Deliberate vs. Latent Intertextuality

Deliberate intertextuality intentionally borrows from other texts, usually through allusions, parody, or symbolism. In such cases, without understanding the references, readers cannot fully grasp the intended meaning of the text.

Latent intertextuality is when references and connections occur incidentally, without the writer making a conscious effort to connect them. The reader’s own prior knowledge is what bridges two works together. This is the intertextuality that theorists like Kristeva would say is unavoidable; whatever you create, it’s bound to be influenced in some way by something you’ve read, seen, or heard before.

What Are Examples of Intertextuality?

Below are 3 examples of intertextuality between twentieth-century works and much older texts.

The Lion King and Hamlet

Disney’s The Lion King was heavily influenced by William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Although not a tragedy, the animated film certainly borrows a lot of its plot points from the 1603 play.

For starters, both protagonists have evil, fratricidal uncles who want to take the throne. In Hamlet, said uncle marries his brother’s widow; in The Lion King, Sarabi doesn’t appear to take up with Scar—but we know that in the real wild, there’s only one male in a pride, and he mates with any females that are able to reproduce, so… sorry to ruin your childhood!

Also in both tales, after the evil uncles have pushed them into exile, the protagonists see their murdered fathers as ghosts who deliver important messages.

The Lion King is an example of deliberate intertextuality, as the writers and directors have acknowledged that they were inspired by Hamlet; in fact, in a much darker alternate ending, the film was going to end with a quote from the play, but we’re glad Disney opted for a happier finale.

East of Eden and The Book of Genesis

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden was heavily inspired by the story of Cain and Abel from the Book of Genesis in the Bible.

Steinbeck’s novel, which takes place primarily in Salinas, California, follows Cal and Aron, both sons of a man named Adam.

Aron envies his brother because Aron is their father’s favorite. Quite unlike the biblical story, however, Cal does not kill Aron, but actually experiences guilt for his transgressions, especially when his brother dies in WWI.

Ulysses and Odyssey

James Joyce’s Ulysses is a modern retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, which takes us from ancient Greece to early 20th-century Dublin.

For one, the chapters of Joyce’s novel correspond to the episodes in Odyssey. While the respective protagonists reside in very different worlds, many scholars have suggested that this deliberate intertextuality was intended by Joyce to show that ordinary people can experience heroic adventures in their daily lives.

The Hunger Games and Romeo and Juliet

It’s not clear if this was a case of deliberate intertextuality, but there are certainly some key similarities between Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

For example, the two works explore themes of love and social class, and although Katniss and Peeta don’t meet the same fates as Romeo and Juliet, they almost do: only one of them can survive the Hunger Games, and since they both refuse to kill the other, they decide to eat poisonous berries together (though fortunately they’re stopped at the last second).

How to Use Intertextuality

Here are three tips for successfully embracing intertextuality in your writing.

1. Think outside your genre.

If you want to experiment with deliberate intertextuality in your own writing, don’t feel limited to your genre.

As you can see from the examples above, children’s cartoons can pay homage to Shakespearean tragedies, romances can borrow from the Bible, and modernists can find inspiration from Greek epics.

So think outside the box! If you feel inspired by a particular work, see how you can put your own unique spin on the same theme, narrative, or archetypes.

2. Accept intertextuality as part of your work.

Don’t see intertextuality as a sign that your work is unoriginal; whether it is deliberate or latent, intertextuality, according to its own theory, is unavoidable. Creativity is not really about being unique or special, but building on what’s already existing in the world.

So since trying to avoid intertextuality is a futile effort, learn to embrace it, and take pride in the fact that your narrative will be connected to the millennia-long history of stories that came before it.

3. Don’t commit plagiarism.

While you should embrace intertextuality, it’s important that you understand the difference between allusions, references, or subtle nods, and plagiarism.

Taking the exact same story and simply changing the names of characters—or using more than a couple lines of the exact text—is not intertextuality, but ripping off someone else’s idea.

If you want to pay homage to a classic, ask yourself how you can change the narrative to create something new that adds to our archives of great literature.

Why Is Intertextuality Used?

When it’s used intentionally to any degree, intertextuality can function kind of like an inside joke, or a wink between you and the writer.

If you don’t catch those winks, you could still understand the story at surface level, but you’ll be missing out on a much richer and more fulfilling reading experience.

After all, there’s something reassuring about the continuity between different texts as new layers of meaning are introduced, and as new generations add their own unique perspectives.

Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!


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