Running in the Family

by Michael Ondaatje

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Why does the author use intertextuality in Running in the Family and how does it contribute to the work's meaning?

Quick answer:

The author uses intertext to render space and time in Running in the Family. This book takes us from one time and place to the next and, as it does so, from one text to another. This intertextual approach contributes to the meaning of the work by giving us a greater understanding of where the author comes from as well as where he’s going.

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Ondaatje’s use of intertext in Running in the Family is entirely appropriate to the telling of his own personal history. The author’s search for roots involves tracing a genealogy of texts that are both literary and historical. His story, therefore, can be seen as not just a map of a journey or series of journeys, but as maps of reading in which texts of various kinds function as signposts, showing the author where he came from and where he’s going.

As well as taking us from one space to another, intertext also has a temporal dimension; it gives life to past events. It is only because of their material representation in various texts as diverse as archives, tombstones, postcards, photographs, and documents, that past events, many of them previously buried out of sight, can be brought to life and have meaning.

In addition, texts play a crucial role in characterization. Ondaatje’s extrovert mother Doris, for example, would often read texts out loud—in her case, poems—and make her children read along with her. To a considerable extent, her larger-than-life personality is defined in its relation to texts. The incorporation of Doris’s favorite poems into the story gives us a greater understanding of her character as well as her son’s background, and his life has also been shaped by texts of one kind or another.

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