The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Marie-Madeleine Gladieu

Intertextuality refers to the relationship among texts that echo or refer to one another, often through allusion, citation, or borrowing. Laurent Jenny defines intertextuality as “the necessary precondition of reading literature,” and Michel Riffaterre, as the mechanism of literary reading itself. This change in ways of thinking about literary texts began in the final years of the 1960s and in the following decade, when Mikhail BAKHTIN coined the notion of dialogism in 1970 and when the word intertextuality was used for the first time by Julia Kristeva in Séméiotikè in 1969 (1980, Desire in Language).

Several critics have argued for a historical dimension to intertextuality. The process of writing in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the baroque and classical periods often amounted to creating a new version of previously existing narratives or texts, giving new form to a theme which in most cases was not original. In such cases, intertextuality was an inherent part of the process of rewriting and practically went without saying. These periods, then, did not encounter the problem of intertextuality per se. It is only when literary production is no longer tied solely to the author's vision, when it is divided between two poles, the writer—the initial creator—and the reader—the second creator—that the notion of literary reading truly emerges, and with it that of intertextuality.

The question of intertextuality thus revolves around the three forms of literary intentio (intention) outlined by Umberto Eco (1990, The Limits of Interpretation): intentio scriptoris (writer's intention), intentio operis (text's intention), and intentio lectoris (reader's intention). It brings into play the author, the text, and the reader. Paul Ricoeur speaks of a “process of recognition” in three senses of the term: recognition as identification, self-recognition, and recognition of the other (2007, The Course of Recognition, trans. D. Pellauer). The first stage consists in identifying and recognizing the presence of intertexts in a given text, and in addressing the problem of how this identification is possible. Moreover, intertextuality raises the question of memory and time. Like a palimpsest, the text and the brain itself presuppose the insertion of a subject, first author and then reader, in a historical time outside of which there can be no construction of the self to serve as the basis for self-recognition. And insofar as memory plays a role in the construction of identity, which is itself inseparable from the process of socialization, the intertext inserted by the writer and recognized by the reader, who uses it as a starting point for reconstituting a text, involves the relationship between the reader and the Other.

The notion of text inevitably includes that of intertext. In his article “Theory of the Text,” published in the Encyclopoedia Universalis in 1968, Roland Barthes explains that the notion of text shifted from the expression of an author's absolute Truth to the idea of a continuous production of meaning. The text no longer expresses a single meaning imparted by the author at the moment of writing, but serves as a vehicle for other, prior connotations. In the 1960s there emerged a “crisis of signification” due to the evolution of philosophy and the development of LINGUISTICS. The notion that textual utterances were endowed with stable meaning gave way to the idea that they were valid in a given context. A new theory of meaning appeared during this period: semiotics, which raised the question of signification at the level of the text's macrostructure rather than merely at the level of the sentence. Under the influence of the Prague School, research on the “poetics of form” was conducted (see FORMALISM). Grounding his work in this research, as well as in Marxism and psychoanalysis, Barthes reduced the scope of the author's intentio and underlined the importance of determining factors—social structures, the unconscious—beyond authorial control (see MARXIST, PSYCHOANALYTIC). For Barthes, a text is a texture, an interwoven fabric; it is a signifying practice accomplished in relationship to the discourse of the social Other (the interrelational dimension) and of the Other that inhabits us (the unconscious). As a result, the text is produced by a psychically plural subject. The signifier can always be interpreted by either writer or reader in a manner that differs slightly from precedent: this leads to the notion of the productivity of the text, which produces meaning. This productivity, which is also called signifiance, is opposed to signification, which is rigid, fixed, the result of applying interpretive doctrines to the text. Signifiance is open to contradiction. Like Kristeva, Barthes differentiates phenotext, or written text, and geno-text, the site of signifiance. Intertext, then, designates the text as a meeting place for prior and contemporary utterances, transcribed faithfully or unfaithfully, identifiable or unidentifiable, conscious or unconscious. Intertextuality thus goes beyond the mere elucidation of a text's sources.

“The work can be held in the hand, the text is held in language,” writes Barthes, by which he means that the work is closed, while the text is open. The text, he affirms, “is only language and can only be experienced via another language.” But simultaneously, in its “textual specificity,” text becomes one with signifiance, an unstable entity in constant tension which tends to exceed its own limits. Semanalysis, a concept invented by Julia Kristeva, is the science of the geno-text's shifting meanings. If the trend in textual theory is toward writing (écriture), to suggest that “commentary should itself be a text” amounts to postulating that the text as it is read becomes the intertext of a “text that reads.”

For Michel Arrivé, the text is poly-isotopic. Following the lead of François Rastier and Algirdas Julien Greimas, he distinguishes between formal and semantic isotopies. Interlocking isotopies make it possible to go back to other utterances located upstream from the text. The isotopy, defined as an assemblage of disparate elements gathered under the heading of a single structural unit, makes it possible to avoid reducing the intertext to only those elements that are based on a syntactical continuity. According to Arrivé, literary texts present isotopies “which are not manifested by any lexeme” and called connoted isotopies.

We thus arrive at five definitions of intertextuality:

1. Intertext denotes each (external) utterance whose direct or transformed presence the reader identifies in the text.

2. For Riffaterre, the intertext is “all of the texts that can be brought into a close relationship with the text at hand.” He gives this definition in his article “L'intertexte inconnu” (1981, Littérature 41).

3. By intertext, Laurent Jenny designates the “host text” insofar as it contains a certain number of heterogeneous utterances: “the text absorbs a multiplicity of texts while remaining anchored by a central meaning.”

4. Arrivé hesitates between a global version—the intertext is “all of the texts among which relationships of intertextuality are functioning”—and a more targeted version—“the site of the manifestation of the connoted isotopy,” a formal or semantic isotopy.

5. For others, the intertext is the space of free play created by different, preexisting utterances meeting within a given text: intertext would then be a synonym of intertextuality.

With time, the first definition became the accepted one: the term “intertextuality” refers to everything that concerns the relationship among texts; intertext refers to any external utterances whose direct or transformed presence can be identified in the text being read. Literary theory has shifted from a broad understanding of intertextuality (Barthes, Kristeva) to a more circumscribed understanding (Bouillaguet, Genette). For Kristeva, in Desire in Language, the presence of paintings in a novel is an intertext; the idéologème (exposition of a social and/or historical situation) is also an intertext. Laurent Jenny, in “La stratégie de la forme,” considers the reference to a text as a genre, the transformations of meaning and form, and the literal reproduction of a heterogeneous utterance as intertexts. He begins to constrict the notion of intertextuality.

In Palimpsests, Gérard Genette calls all types of relationships among texts transtextuality. He identifies five forms; architextuality (generic relationship to a category of text), metatextuality (a commentary of a prior text by a second text), paratextuality (the role played by the peripheral guidelines accompanying the publication and criticism of a text), hypertextuality (the rewriting of a prior text or hypotext), and intertextuality (the relationship of copresence between two or more texts).

Intertextuality manifests itself in three ways: citation, plagiarism, and allusion. In an article on intertextuality (“Une typologie de l'emprunt”), Annick Bouillaguet adds the reference, defined as the mere mention of an author's name or of a work's title. When intertextuality is literal or explicit, it is called citation. When it is literal and nonexplicit, it is called plagiarism. Nonliteral and explicit, it is a reference; nonliteral and nonexplicit, it is an allusion. Let us note that plagiarism covers the usurpation of author's rights (see COPYRIGHT) as well as collage, which comes under the heading of another problem. Moreover, according to Genette, intertextuality often takes the form of hypertextuality, the transformation of a hypotext into a hypertext (a text that is read); Kristeva, Barthes, and Philippe Sollers link intertextuality to the notion of the text's productivity and to signifiance. And Jenny affirms that “the very essence of intertextuality for the poetician” is situated in “the work of assimilation and transformation which characterizes any intertextual process.”

In “Intertexte et autotexte,” Lucien Dällenbach adds the notion of autotext. The intertext refers to texts by other authors, while the autotext refers to texts by the same author. For his part, Jean Ricardou distinguishes between general intertextuality (the relationship to different authors) and restricted intertextuality (the relationship to the works of the same author).

In a later, 1989 entry in the Encyclopoedia Universalis, “Intertextualité (Théorie de l'),” Pierre-Marc de Biasi defines intertextuality as “the elucidation of the process by which any text can be read as the integration and the transformation of one or several other texts.”

What role does the author's intention and the reader's power of identification play in intertextuality? The reader's identification of the intertext sometimes surprises the writer, who had no intention of playing the intertextual game. Inversely, authors sometimes reveal the presence of a hidden intertextual layer at the origin of their work. A limit case of intertextuality that Ferdinand de Saussure (1857—1913) claims to have discovered in Latin poetry also deserves mention—the hypogram (theme-word) hidden by Venus in Lucretius's work De rerum natura (first c. BCE, On the Nature of Things). It is sometimes hard to distinguish between the author's intention and the reader's recognition of a hypotext.

In Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), Thomas de Quincey (1785—1859) compares the human brain to an immense, natural palimpsest where poems of joy and pain have been engraved and lie dormant, ready to come to the surface one day. This image refers to the author, but also to the reader. It underlines the double polarization of any utterance. Bakhtin affirms that all understanding is, in reality, dialogic, that original meaning is enriched by a supplement constructed by the “second recipient”—in the case of a written text, the reader.

The problem of the recognition-identification of intertexts raises the question of their misrecognition: forgetting, as well as the evolution of cultures, of contexts, leads to deliberate intertexts going unnoticed. Criticism and scholarship can help to fill this gap. The intertext sometimes guides the reader toward the constitution of the architext, both by its title and what it triggers in the reader's memory: it thus has an impact on the contrat de lecture (reading contract).

If, as Riffaterre argues, the identification of the intertext is indeed the condition of literariness, it has repercussions on reading. The act of borrowing from another work—the presence of a “second hand,” as Antoine Compagnon puts it (1979, La Seconde Main)—may occur as homage, mockery, or merely a complicit wink. The relationships between texts is either serious, satirical, or playful. Intertextuality breaks with the linearity of a text, amplifies the circulation of meaning and the movement from the denotative to the connotative realm.

In The Course of Recognition, Paul Ricoeur adds a philosophical dimension to intertextuality. The word “recognition” is linked to two ideas: the emergence of meanings (faits de pensée), and the idea that these meanings do not emerge ex nihilo. In writing, there exists a sort of intertextual fertile ground. Ricoeur distinguishes three levels of recognition: the recognition-identification of intertexts, the self-recognition resulting from the symbolic play born of this recognition, and the mutual recognition that occurs when the author's text becomes the intertext of the reading text. Identity and alterity, then, underpin intertextuality.


1. Allen, G. (2000), Intertextuality.

2. Arrivé, M. (1973), “ Pour une théorie des textes poly-isotopiques,” Langages 31: 53—63.

3. Bellemin-Noel, J. (2001), “Interlecture versus intertexte,” in Plaisirs de vampire.

4. Block, H. (1958), “ The Concept of Influence in Comparative Literature,” Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 7: 35—37.

5. Bouillaguet, A. (1989), “ Une typologie de l'emprunt,” Poétique 80: 489—97.

6. Dällenbach, L. (1976), “ Intertexte et autotexte,” Poétique 27: 282—96.

7. Eco, U. (1990), Limits of Interpretation.

8. Genette, G. (1997), Palimpsests, trans. C. Newman and C. Doubinksy.

9. Jenny, L. (1976), “ La stratégie de la forme,” special issue, Poétique 27: 257—81.

10. Orr, M. (2003), Intertextuality.

11. Piégay-Gros, N. (1996), Introduction à l'intertextualité.

12. Riffaterre, M. (1984), Semiotics of Poetry.

13. Starobinski, J. (1980), Words upon Words.

14. Todorov, T. (1984), “Intertextuality,” in Mikhail Bakhtin.