Examples of Intertextuality in Literature

Intertextuality is the way one literary text meaningfully references, imitates and transforms elements from other texts. It involves an interconnected relationship between writings where new works are shaped by incorporating, building upon or reacting against previous works. A text does not exist in isolation but arises from a broader “intertextual” matrix of influences, sources and associated meanings.

Function of Intertextuality

Intertextuality proposes that every text functions as an “absorption and transformation” of pre-existing works. Each new piece of writing inevitably relates to and borrows from this endless network of prior writings. Even without citing directly, authors construct their narratives, characters, allusions, styles etc. by combining many predecessors and contexts from world literature and culture.

The notion of intertextuality suggests texts cannot be self-contained, fully independent works. Their meanings are enriched by recognizing connections to other writings that provide additional interpretive contexts and perspectives. Intertextual relationships generate implicit dialogues between authors, time periods, genres, styles, and themes through their shared codes, symbols, archetypes, and conventions.

Importance of Intertextuality

Examining intertextual interplay between writings illuminates how texts influence each other within broader cultural, philosophical, and aesthetic currents. It challenges conventional assumptions about singular meaning, independent authorship, and boundaries between texts by revealing pervasive interdependencies and intersections shaping their significance.

Functions of Intertextuality

  • Enriches interpretive possibilities by establishing new contexts and associations
  • Provides greater depth and complexity to a work’s meaning through a web of interconnections
  • Expands perspectives and opens up dialogues across texts, authors, genres, periods
  • It allows text to accumulate collective wisdom and significance over the time
  • Reveals how literature thought reflects cultural evolution as meanings accrete

Difference between Intertextuality and Allusion

Intertextuality involves a broader, more indirect process of absorption and transformation between texts. In contrast, allusion refers to a more direct, conscious reference by one author citing or calling to mind another specific text, figure, or myth (i.e. Keats alluding to Milton).

Allusions are specific, micro-level instances that contribute to the larger macro-level phenomenon of intertextuality. A text may contain many pointed allusions, but these participate in a more diffuse intertextual relationship between the new work and the broader pre-existing literary canon and conventions.

Allusion is more localized, purposeful, and identifiable through recognized references. Intertextuality encompasses more pervasive, implicit connections across themes, structures, codes, contexts and shared influences that transcend any single direct allusion.

Ultimately, intertextuality proposes texts cannot be fully autonomous works. Instead, they arise through perpetual recycling, updating, and referencing of conventions, sources, and intersecting meanings from prior discourse comprising the great intertextual matrix of literature itself.

Examples of Intertextuality in literature


“Ulysses” by James Joyce

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…”

The opening line of the poem is an intertextual reference and parody of the classic fairy tale style of “Once upon a time…”. Joyce intermingles the recognizable fairy tale format with his own stream-of-consciousness language like “moocow” and “tuckoo”. He creates a dialogue between the children’s story tradition and his modernist experimentation. Joyce draws the reader into a shared world of common literary references by referencing these familiar stories. The use of intertextuality writing style serves and entertain the reader to challenge traditional literary conventions.


“Pale Fire” by Vladimir Nabokov

“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane”

These famous opening lines allude to the Romantic poets like Keats and Shelley through the reference to the “waxwing” bird. Nabokov intertextually positions his avant-garde novel in relation to the English Romantic tradition.


“One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez

“He dug so deeply into her sentiments that in search of interest he found love, because she her reservations inspired not the slightest underapraisal.”

The writer alludes to Miguel de Cervantes’ iconic Don Quixote through echoes of its syntax, vocabulary and narrative style. This intertextual connection grounds magical realism of Márquez in the Spanish literary canon. The use of intertextuality invites comparison between the writing techniques of the author. It highlights the timeless nature of the themes. Furthermore, the addition of the phrase “in search of interest” adds a layer of irony to the sentence. It questions whether genuine love can be discovered through the pursuit of mere personal interest or if it goes deeper than that.


“The Tempest” by William Shakespeare

“Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.”

Shakespeare uses the reference of the Greek myth of Orion in the play. Orion was a figure, who was transformed into stars by the sea. The writer connects his writing to previous myths and literature by quoting this reference. This helps to give his words more meaning and emotion. It also lets readers connect the passage to cultural history they may already know. The referencing of other works is a technique which Shakespeare uses to give his writing deep meaning. It helps readers better understand and engage with the complex ideas he explores.


The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot

“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”

Eliot employs intertextuality by alluding to and reworking an iconic line from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.” Specifically, the opening line “April is the cruellest month” is a direct reference to Chaucer’s line “Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote.” However, the Chaucer uses April to signify spring renewal and the excitement of a pilgrimage, whereas Eliot subverts this by describing April as “the cruellest month.” This juxtaposition establishes an intertextual dialogue, which invites comparison between the author’s representation of April. It highlights the departure of Eliot from optimism of Chaucerand his creation of a more modern and disillusioned poetic voice. Moreover, the words like “breeding”, “dead land” and “dull roots” further reinforce this barrenness and distance from Chaucer’s lush lively April.


“Wide Sargasso” Sea by Jean Rhys

“They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.”

Rhys wrote this postcolonial novel as an intertextual response and prequel to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. She reinterprets Brontë’s story from the formerly marginalized Caribbean perspective to expose its colonial biases and provide a dialogic counter-narrative.

Related Terms with Intertextuality

Here are two additional literary terms related to intertextuality:


An allusion is an indirect reference to another work of literature, art or popular culture. When a writer makes an allusion, they assume the reader will recognize and understand the connection. Allusion is a common form of intertextuality.


A pastiche imitates the style of another work of art. It intentionally incorporates recognizable elements, stylistic techniques and conventions from other works in order to comment on or recontextualize them within a new piece. Pastiches draw meaning through this intertextual blending of other texts.

Read also: Literary Devices That Start With ‘I’


In essence, the intertextually positions itself in an interconnected relationship with other preceding literary texts, genres, styles and cultural contexts. This network of intersections and sources enriches meanings while revealing debates between respective artistic visions and worldviews across eras.

Examples of Intertextuality in literature
Examples of Intertextuality in literature

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