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HELBLING READERS BLOG

Making connections: Stories and intertextuality

January 28, 2022 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

When we thought about the past year, both on this blog and in our daily lives, one thing stood out as being especially important - the connections we forge and keep. So this year, we have decided to delve deeper into the theme of CONNECTIONS, looking at it from twelve different perspectives. Each month, we will explore the connections in stories, learning, relationships, and many other aspects of our lives, and we will show you how to develop them with your students. We will do this through language-based activities and stories, so that you find plenty of opportunities to develop your students’ English language skills while guiding them in establishing connections and supporting their own learning. 

When we think of connections, E.M. Forster’s famous line ‘Only connect…’ comes to mind. What exactly does this line from the 1910 novel, Howards End, mean? The full quote goes like this: ‘Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.’ Reading these words in the context of the novel, we realize that the real value, and often difficulty in life, is making healthy personal relationships. This basic human need to feel connected gains special significance today. The more time we spend in digital environments, the more we need to make connections, and the more we realize that they come in many shapes. 

Within the many forms of connectedness, our first topic in January focuses on connections in stories and the literary concept of intertextuality.

What is intertextuality and why does it matter?

The idea that texts are connected to each other in different ways is not a new one. Stories have always been linked to each other simply because words and phrases have the simple power to make invisible connections between texts. On a higher level, texts are also connected through motifs, symbols, settings, narrative structures, character, and plot types. The stylistic choices of authors can also create links between texts. There are multiple layers of meanings in texts which can be revealed by close reading and analysis as part of a network of texts. The connections that we notice between texts are called intertextuality, a concept introduced by philosopher and literary critic Julia Kristeva in the 1960s. 

Finding these connections can be either an individual or group activity, as your students’ previous reading and cultural experiences (film, cartoon, music, video games) determine how many layers of meanings they will find in the texts they read. The more they read, the more connections they will find. However, you can also guide them in finding and describing intertextual allusions.

Intertextual investigations are both fun and practical. Students love finding connections between various texts (and by texts we also mean films, art, cartoons, music videos and much more). Sometimes the links are purely personal and will be different from reader to reader. Other times the author includes intentional references in a story to other texts. For this reason, it is always a good idea to talk about connections in class to see how many students find similar links between the story read in class and their own experiences. Intertextual thinking also helps them to become more conscious and critical readers who notice allusions and associations.

Different types of connections

Words, phrases and names

There are simple links that exist on the level of words and phrases. For example, if someone in a story says ‘Elementary’, we may think of Sherlock Holmes and create a link between the famous detective and the character in our story. Sometimes a name can also create a link. For example, the character Darcy in both Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones’s Diary points to links between the two stories. In other stories, biblical or mythological names make us think that there might be something more to look for.

Setting

On the level of settings, when a story begins in a dark castle, we might think of a story by Edgar Allan Poe or other Gothic stories. Another example is the windy moorland of Yorkshire, a typical setting for the stories of the Bronte sisters. References to a setting can create a special atmosphere for a story.

Plot

Stories that belong to the same genre often have similar plot types. For example, detective stories often have a moment when the mystery is solved and the detective presents his findings. In fairy tales or mythological stories, there is often a miraculous intervention. These plot elements often appear in different types of stories, reminding us of other story types.

Characters

Dragons, fairies, magicians, and trolls belong to fairy tales and fantasies. Detectives and their assistants are typical of detective (or superhero) stories. Kings, queens, princes, and princesses usually appear in historical novels and some fairytales. When characters are similar in two stories, we often make connections. A very clever eccentric man may remind us of Sherlock Holmes, even if we are not reading a detective story, but watching a medical drama such as Dr House, where the doctor is very similar to Mr Holmes (say it aloud for the connection with house).

Symbols 

Symbolism is a powerful way to connect stories either intentionally or unintentionally. For example, a ship (even a spaceship) can be a symbol of discovery, unknown territories, and adventure. Just think of the story of Gulliver's Travels and other famous sea adventures or Star Trek ‘going boldly where no man has gone before’.


Three ways to look for connections

Encourage students to make connections between stories they read in class and other stories they encounter in their life and during other lessons. They can choose two or more stories and present the connections they find. Here are three ways to guide them in these discoveries.

Links with myths, legends, folk tales and religious stories

Students can set out to find connections between ancient stories and stories they read today. Here is a simple example. Most students know Frozen, the Disney classic. Collect some basic elements of the story that may link to other stories.

  • Two very different sisters
  • A faraway land, where the king and queen are kind people
  • One sister has a special power
  • One sister accidentally gets into trouble through a powerful element: ice/snow

What other stories have similar elements?

Characters, places and names

The white rabbit appears in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but it also plays a role in the film Matrix, for example. Are there any other stories where it appears?

Sometimes it is not a character, but a name that draws our attention to connections. When unusual or famous names appear in two stories, it is a good idea to do some research and analysis to see if there are other ways they are connected.

The choice of a setting can be an explicit connection between two stories. Look for the same setting in stories and decide how they are connected.

Famous lines and quotes

Look for famous lines in stories, for example 'Curiouser and curiouser' is a typical reference to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

What famous literary quotes do you know and use? 

In general, it is a good idea to draw your students' attention to the existence of these links between stories and let them explore stories they know and read. Inspire them to start looking.