Foster claims that one of the delightful things about being an English professor is being able to recognize recurring characters and archetypes within literature, which he compares to “meeting old friends.” As a beginner reader, it can be hard to identify the connections between different texts, authors, characters, genres, and tropes. Although some people might be particularly gifted when it comes to the ability to find these connections and patterns, this ability mostly comes as a result of practice. Reading widely and often allows people to learn how to look for patterns within and between books.
Throughout the book, Foster emphasizes the importance of practice in order to develop the skill of analytical reading. This is important, as we don’t usually think of reading as a skill that needs to be practiced (unlike sports, for example, or playing an instrument). In this passage, Foster makes it clear that the more people read, the better they will be at identifying and interpreting intertextuality.
The literary critic Northrop Frye claimed that literature always grows out of other literature; in a similar vein, Foster emphasizes that “there is no such thing as a wholly original work literature.” To demonstrate this point, Foster cites Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato (1978), a novel about the Vietnam War which consists entirely of material borrowed from other sources. O’Brien uses multiple narrative frames to draw attention to this patchwork process of assembling a central story from many different fragments.
“Borrowing” from other preexisting works has something of a bad image, especially among students who are strongly discouraged from plagiarism. Here Foster shows that—unlike plagiarizing academic work—there are productive ways of “borrowing,” and that it would actually be impossible to write a work of literature without doing so.
At one point, a character in Going After Cacciato falls down a hole in the road, an episode Foster links to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Meanwhile, the protagonist’s love interest, Sarkin Aung Wan, can be viewed as a Vietnamese version of Sacajawea. The fact that Sacajawea was a real historical figure and not a literary character is not important; history is, after all, also a story, and thus the connection between Sarkin Aung Wan and Sacajawea is part of a network of intertextuality.
In addition to being examples of intertextuality, the connections Foster cites in this passage are also examples of symbol and archetype. The hole that characters fall down is a symbol of the unknown, of transformation, and of moving from one “world” to another. Sacajawea and Sarkin Aung Wan arguably originate from the same archetype of the indigenous woman who acts as a guide to invaders of her land.
Foster claims that the reason this network of intertextuality exists is because “there is only one story.” This universal story has always been happening all over the world, and thus connects works of literature from ancient epics to fairy tales to 20th century memoir to contemporary TV. All stories grow out of one another, crossing boundaries of genre as well as time and place.
Note that when Foster argues that there is “one story,” he doesn’t mean that every work of literature in the world has the same plot, or archetypes, or themes. Rather, the single story refers to the interconnection of all works of literature, and the huge variety of themes resulting from universal human experience.
Connections between stories can be explicit, but more often they are subtle and will only be detectable by the reader who is well-practiced in pattern recognition. As a result, many readers will fail to identify intertextual references within a literary work. There is nothing wrong with this, as almost all works of literature can be enjoyed in their own right. Identification of patterns and archetypes can thus be thought of as a “bonus.” Understanding intertextual gestures, parallels, and archetypes enriches our reading of a text, adding layers of meaning that make the narrative more vibrant and complex.
The sheer amount of intertextual references in a given literary work can be overwhelming, particularly when they are alluded to in subtle, barely-noticeable ways. However, as Foster explains, it is rarely necessary to identify all of the intertextual layers at play. Even finding one intertextual reference can have a transformative impact on one’s interpretation of a book.
Contemporary writers in particular are known to deliberately play around with intertextuality, and the results can be difficult to untangle. Angela Carter’s novel Wise Children (1992) portrays a family of Shakespearean actors whose lives imitate, parallel, and at times pervert narratives from Shakespeare’s plays. Carter anticipates the reader’s reactions and expectations in order to subvert them and catch the reader by surprise. Crucially, Carter’s tricks are effective regardless of whether or not the reader is a Shakespeare buff.
Starting in the modernist period at the beginning of the 20th century, writers began consciously infusing their work with many complex intertextual references. Such experimentation creates a kind of puzzle for readers and scholars. This trend shows that many authors self-consciously anticipate how their work will be received and studied, another hallmark of 20th and 21st literature.
This brings Foster back to the earlier point that recognizing intertextual features is not necessary to understanding and enjoying a book; rather, it is a “bonus” technique that will deepen and complicate the reader’s understanding of the book. Although finding intertextual references can be difficult at first, part of developing the ability to recognize these patterns consists of simply having the confidence of knowing that they are there. In this way, literature professors can help readers identify intertextual features without necessarily pointing them out directly.
Just like other aspects of literary analysis, identifying intertextuality is less a question of “proof” and more of making a convincing argument. There are cases in which we can know definitively whether or not an author intended to make an intertextual reference—for example, by looking at drafts of the novel in the author’s archive. However, most of the time we must rely on our own instincts and logic.