Exploring the Intertextuality

By this time it is no unknown fact that Fyodor Dostoevsky’s works often consist of biblical allusions and references to other literary works both directly and indirectly or with subtlety. Quite often readers overlook the effect and significance of such borrowed anecdotes or verses from other texts as they tend to consider it a part of the novel necessary in regards to the setting or plot, and thus seeing it as just a tool or part of the narrative. However, with Mikhail Bakhtin’s notions of Heteroglossia and polyphony, as well as Julia Kristeva’s theory of Intertextuality, we come to understand that there are more aspects and roles at play in adoption of these parts than that meets the eye. Hence, this paper will explore the various presences of intertextual references, its application in the novel, and its significance in the novel and its interpretations and meaning; however, with the limited scope of this paper, the focus will largely be on the first five chapters of the novel from the first part.

Julia Kristeva coined the term ‘Intertextuality’ and developed the theory of Intertextuality; while she explored the works of Mikhail Bakhtin and Semiotics by Saussure. According to her, “any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another” (Kristeva 37). In simple words, Intertextuality is the underlying relationship of other literary works with the literary piece at hand for this theory suggests that no text can be a product completely produced by an individual’s words and concepts alone. This can be in the form of “direct quotations, allusions, literary conventions, imitations, parody and unconscious sources among others” (Simandan 2:34-2:45). In most cases, the more common and easily distinguished expressions of Intertextuality include parody, allusion or pastiche.

However, the important aspect that makes this theory so significant is that in most cases the literary works produced are an assemblage or collage of much of what its author has come across, and in most cases, without the author’s own conscious intentions. Since every text must contain elements of other texts, we must look at “texts not as self-contained systems but as differential and historical, as traces and tracings of otherness, since they are shaped by the repetition and transformation of other textual structures” (Alfaro 268). This inevitably shapes the literary work in concern as the writer, consciously or unconsciously, must borrow and reflect from other texts that surround him. Hence, the theory of Intertextuality opens up a huge potential in literary criticism and broadens the scope of the discourse, while it guides the narrative structure of any literary work.

In this case, this paper will find the intertextual references as they appear, in a chronological manner, in Part I of the novel Crime and Punishment and try to analyze and understand how it affects the novel as a whole. To start, let us look at the most interesting piece of evidence that we come across in the second chapter: the narrator says “he had most likely acquired his weakness for high-flown speeches from the habit of frequently entering into conversation with strangers of all sorts in the tavern. This habit develops into a necessity” (Dostoevsky 15). This could be a clear message from Dostoevsky through the narrator to his readers about this fundamental human nature to pick up habits from one’s surroundings, and how this comes out naturally without one’s conscious intentions. As Mermeladov continues to speak of his troubling situation, we find direct mention of “Cyrus of Persia”, a major historical figure (Dostoevsky 19).

Though seemingly a negligible detail, it actually serves a great purpose in the readers’ perception of Sonia’s character and background as the novel progresses. The intertextual reference found here, must be from a source that allowed Dostoevsky to learn of Cyrus in order to be able to write about him. Moreover, the phrase that is added to after Cyrus’s name came from the historical accounts of Cyrus of course. Again amidst his narrative we come across a child singing “The Hamlet” and this of course could be a subtle foreshadowing of the murder and psychological torment that is about to come- not to mention this is a direct allusion to Shakespeare (Dostoevsky 21). At one point of his speech, he cried out saying he deserved to be crucified and we are presented with a long paragraph where he goes on to assert why and how he is to be crucified. The fact that this is a direct allusion to Christ’s crucifixion is nothing surprising but we see how this, a major part of the text, was borrowed from the Bible as “numerous movements throughout Dostoevsky’s canon, characters recite short anecdotes that exhibit features we tend to ascribe to biblical parable” (Miller 69). Its significance lies not in extending the description and narrative, but in the fact that it shapes up Mermeladov’s character and his situation while giving him a voice and perspective of his own. Another point to note is, according to Professor Robin Miller (who in his book mentions that), Christ favored teaching through parables (71). With the concept of Intertextuality at play, the narrative structure of the novel becomes a lot clearer in terms of its purpose and meaning which manifested through Dostoevsky’s intense study of religious scriptures.

In the third chapter we come across the long letter to Raskolnikov from his mother where she expresses her fears of him being “visited by the new spirit of infidelity” (Dostoevsky 43). This is a clear reference to his mother’s religious beliefs for a commandant from the Book of Exodus forbids adultery. Hence, we find a manifestation of Dostoevsky’s reading of the religious texts in his novels in subtle details- though it is unsure how much of these minor details are intentional. However, Intertextuality or the collage of other texts in a text, for a fact stands to be evident and significant in developing the text. Apart from the visible biblical allusions, in his response to his sister’s decision in marriage he says to himself that he knew “she would rather be a nigger on a plantation or a Lett with a German master” (Dostoevsky 47). This gives us a further clear idea of how other texts, with little relevance to the text at hand, becomes incorporated in the text. This bit of knowledge about the plantations was of course something the author came to know through other texts for the media during then was vastly limited to paper. Furthermore, in retaliation to his sister’s fiancé he mockingly compares him to say “How are you … future millionaire Zeus who would arrange their lives for them?” (Dostoevsky 49). Apart from the direct allusion to the Greek god, the significance of this intertextual reference manifests in his mother’s view of his sister’s fiancé (whom she looks up to as a live-saving God who would transform their lives), and in the later chapters where the true nature of Dounia’s fiancé is revealed. Lastly, due to the scarce scope of this paper, in the fifth chapter we find the direct allusion to Alexander Pushkin and Ivan Turgenev in regards to Raskolnikov’s terrifying dream full of fearful imageries. Not to mention Pushkin and Turgenev’s works must have been read by Dostoevsky to be able to allude to them; the interesting aspect lies in the fact that Pushkin is famous for his irony to depict the cruelty and flaws in society. “He writes now seriously, now with irony, and now with irony at his own irony, on moral and philosophical themes. He is ultimately a philosophical fox” (Morson). Pushkin’s works and style, in the light of Intertextuality, are similar to Raskolnikov’s dream of the tortured mare, as well as how the story would unfold as its consequence.

Despite the limited scope allowing us to explore only the first five chapters of the novel, the paper has outlined numerous instances that illustrate the presence and significance of intertextual relations in this novel in regards to many other outside texts. With the theory of Intertextuality, as developed by Kristeva as an almost continuation of her drawings from Bakhtin, being applied to certain parts of the novel; we come to realize how the text is inevitable interconnected to various other sources, which ultimately has shaped up the narrative and allowed for the plot to unfold as it did. Even though most of the focus from academics goes into the intertextual relationship if the text with the Bible, with this paper we can understand that the application of this theory exposes the tiny unnoticeable details that are reflections of the texts to come to light; and hence, further expand our perception of literature, its functions and its making process.


Works Cited

Alfaro, María Jesús Martínez. “INTERTEXTUALITY: ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE CONCEPT.” Atlantis, vol. 18, no. 1/2, 1996, pp. 268–285. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41054827. Accessed 5 Apr. 2021.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Reprint, Friends Book Corner, 2012.

Kristeva, Julia. “Word, Dialogue and Novel.” The Kristeva Reader, edited by Toril Moi, Columbia University Press, 1986, p. 37.

Miller, Robin Feuer. “The Gospel According to Dostoevsky: Paradox, Plot and Parable.” Dostoevsky’s Unfinished Journey, Illustrated, Yale University Press, 2014, pp. 69–71.

Morson, Gary Saul. “Russian literature”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 15 May. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/art/Russian-literature. Accessed 6 April 2021.

Simandan, Voicu Mihnea. “WHAT IS INTERTEXTUALITY? | LITERARY THEORY COURSE.” YouTube, uploaded by UpLife, 7 Nov. 2018,