Byatt: Intertextuality

Or, How to read Possession?

In this essay Laura Kilbride introduces a very important idea in literary theory - intertextuality - and suggests ways that A.S. Byatt's novel might be addressed as a work in which it features prominently.

There is no reason why the reader cannot simply enjoy Possession as it is without stooping to track every suggestion of intertextuality. Yet Byatt's position as a 'clever and hinting sort of woman' (as Christabel LaMotte is described in the novel) suggests that Possession might be best enjoyed and understood in conjunction with other texts. Possession, like T.S Eliot's intertextual poem 'The Waste Land', might function as a base or touchstone for the reader's knowledge of other literary works. As with Eliot's poem, rereading the book after a space of some years would certainly generate new thoughts and connections because of the other texts a reader has entertained in the intervening period. In the words of LaMotte, 'The Thicket is Thorny', but it is also the riddling and enigmatic nature of the text which make it so enjoyable.

What is Meant by 'Intertextuality'?

At its most basic level intertextuality acknowledges the fact that no text is an island. All texts are intertexts in so far as they refer to, recycle and draw from other pre-existing texts. The term was coined by the French critic and philosopher Julia Kristeva in 1969. By inventing it, Kristeva was proposing a new theory of reading in which meaning is not communicated between the writer and reader directly but is instead produced when the reader recognises the text as a 'mosaic of quotations' of previous texts, which she then decodes in order to make sense of the work. This means that the production of meaning in a text takes place on both horizontal and vertical axes:

Previous texts

Reader → (Inter)Text ← Writer

Texts which follow

Whether a text as a whole is based on a source, as was the case with James Joyce's rewrite of Homer's Odyssey in Ulysses, or whether it simply uses language from the same lexicon, the theory of intertextuality recognizes that all texts are reliant on prior traditions and literary forms.

Intertextuality in Critical Theory

Kristeva is recognized as the originator of the term, but it took a long time for her work to be translated into English. As a result Anglo-American understandings of intertextuality tend to depend on the reformulations of French theorist Roland Barthes. For Barthes the text is:

a new tissue of recycled citations. Fragments of codes, formulae, model rhythms, bits of social discourse pass into the text and are redistributed within it [...] The intertext is a field of anonymous formulae whose origin is rarely recoverable, of unconscious or automatic citations without speech marks. (Roland Barthes; see entry for 'Texte (théorie du)' in Encyclopédie universalis (Paris, 1973).)

Barthes negates the notion of authorial intention as a guide to the interpretation of texts, suggesting that a work can be intertextual without the writer realising. It is this which allowed Barthes to claim in a famous essay ('The Death of the Author') that the author, as a meaning-making category, was dead. Instead the text is a thick-textured web produced from pre-existing texts and reproduced by the reader who has to act as a kind of literary detective to decode the textual formulae.

Intertextuality in Practice

An intertextual approach to the interpretation of literature encourages questions such as: How does this text relate to its sources? What language, symbols, stock images, rhythms, poetic forms and techniques are present in the text and which are left behind? How is this text in dialogue with previous genres, themes and historical contexts? An intertextually minded critic might also assess how latent or available the intertextual elements are and how far the writer expects the reader to pick up on connections to prior texts in order to decode their significance. There is some debate among critics as to what counts as Intertextuality. Some critics consider the presence of broad themes and ideas as intertextual components; others argue that only a straight quotation counts as an intertextual moment. This makes intertextuality one of the most fraught and uncertain terms in literary criticism.

The advantage of an intertextual approach is that it focuses on the process of composition to reveal intention, while allowing for the reader's role in producing the meaning of a text. It is both reader and writer centred, encompassing the entire process by which a text comes into being and is understood. The disadvantage of an intertextual approach to literature is that it seems to require specialist knowledge on the part of the reader. It ignores the fact that a word or phrase can mean something to a reader, whether or not the reader knows if that word or phrase has already been used by a previous writer.

Intertextuality in Byatt's Possession

Knowledge of the sources of Byatt's novel is certainly an advantage to the reader when it comes to divining Possession. Her work is highly intertextual, self-consciously drawing on Victorian poetry, biography, and other texts. Byatt is aware of the theory of intertextuality, as the discovery of Maud and Roland in Chapter 12 makes clear:

'Well is there an echo here? This is out of Ask to Embla. It possibly links that fountain to the one in the Song of Songs, as well. Listen:

We drank deep of the Fountain of Vancluse
And where the northern Force incessantly
Stirs the still pool, were stirred. And shall those founts
Which freely flowed to meet our thirsts, be sealed?'

Maud said 'Say that again.'

Roland said it again.

Maud said, 'Have you ever really felt your hackles rise? Because I just have. Prickles all down my spine and at the roots of my hair. You listen to this. This is what Raimondin says to Melusine after he is told she knows he has looked at her in her marble bath and broken the prohibition:

Ah, Melusine, I have betrayed your faith.
Is there no remedy? Must we two part?
Shall our hearth's ash grow pale, and shall those founts
Which freely flowed to meet our thirsts, be sealed?


'Which came first? His line or her line? There are problems about dating Ask to Embla - which we're obviously on the way to solving, among other things. It reads like a classic literary clue. She was a clever and hinting sort of woman. Look at those dolls.'

'Literary critics make natural detectives,' said Maud. (p. 237)

In this example of intertextual reading a whole quotation has been tracked from one text into another. The existence of intertextuality at the level of quotation aids them in interpreting the two texts in question, leading them to postulate arguments for intention, date and context. Byatt is obviously aware of the intertextual approach and appears to be recommending a similar approach to her reader.

Though the interpolation of whole quotations rarely occurs, other more subtle instances of intertextuality are present in Possession. Byatt's conscious use of allusion, the borrowing of names and settings from previous works of literature and biography all suggest an intertextual approach to composition. Most notable are her debts to the poetry of Robert Browning, S.T Coleridge, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti and Alfred Tennyson.

Further Reading

Our case study of intertextuality in Possession (in the menu on the left) follows up this introduction. There are numerous books on intertextuality, but they are all quite technical and challenging. Graham Allen, Intertextuality (London and New York: Routledge, 2000) and Mary Orr, Intertextuality: Debates and Contexts (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003), are good introductions which illuminate the French theory. Christopher Ricks, Allusion to the Poets (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) takes a different term as its paradigm, and is a useful contrast to Allen and Orr in that it is always grounded in close analysis of literature. If you are interested in Latin literature (especially Virgil and Ovid) then Stephen Hinds, Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) is an excellent book. The texts covered may be off your usual patch, but the account of intertextuality is very thoughtful.

Further Thinking

1. Other terms (some used here, some not) partly overlap with intertextuality: allusion, imitation, influence, source. Find out what you can about these words and their uses in criticism, and then think about the implications of using one rather than another when both will do. (These terms can imply views about how literature works, and indeed about how one might view authorities, etc.)

2. For some people the kind of theoretical discussion found in Kristeva and Barthes does not fit easily with the experience of reading a novel like Possession for pleasure (as Laura acknowledges early on). How do you think Possession, which encourages us, after all, to think about how critics and theorists read, manages to hold these things together?

Another way of thinking further about intertextuality is to try other novels that focus on, or worry about, the process of writing, the status of the storyteller or narrator, and the relation of the novel to other works on which it is based (or after which it has been written). For some suggestions on where to turn next, read Raphael Lyne's and Sylvia Karastathi's discussion in 'Possession: Further Reading'.

Comments are closed.