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The Dialogic Imagination

The Dialogic Imagination
Four Essays
Edited by Michael Holquist ; translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist

These essays reveal Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975)--known in the West largely through his studies of Rabelais and Dostoevsky--as a philosopher of language, a cultural historian, and a major theoretician of the novel.

Series: University of Texas Press Slavic Series, No. 1

January 1982
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480 pages | 6 x 9 |

These essays reveal Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975)—known in the West largely through his studies of Rabelais and Dostoevsky—as a philosopher of language, a cultural historian, and a major theoretician of the novel. The Dialogic Imagination presents, in superb English translation, four selections from Voprosy literatury i estetiki (Problems of literature and esthetics), published in Moscow in 1975. The volume also contains a lengthy introduction to Bakhtin and his thought and a glossary of terminology.

Bakhtin uses the category "novel" in a highly idiosyncratic way, claiming for it vastly larger territory than has been traditionally accepted. For him, the novel is not so much a genre as it is a force, "novelness," which he discusses in "From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse." Two essays, "Epic and Novel" and "Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel," deal with literary history in Bakhtin's own unorthodox way. In the final essay, he discusses literature and language in general, which he sees as stratified, constantly changing systems of subgenres, dialects, and fragmented "languages" in battle with one another.

  • Acknowledgments
  • A Note on Translation
  • Introduction
  • Epic and Novel
  • From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse
  • Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel
  • Discourse in the Novel
  • Glossary
  • Index

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Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin is gradually emerging as one of the leading thinkers of the twentieth century. This claim will strike many as extravagant, since a number of factors have until recently conspired to obscure his importance. Beyond the difficulties usually attending the careers of powerful but eccentric thinkers, there are, in Bakhtin's case, complications that are unique. Some of these inhere in his times: his two most productive periods occurred during the darkest years of recent Russian history: the decade following 1917, when the country reeled under the combined effects of a lost war, revolution, civil war and famine; and the following decade, the thirties, when Bakhtin was in exile in Kazakhstan, and most of the rest of Russia was huddling through the long Stalinist night. It was in these years that Bakhtin wrote something on the order of nine large books on topics as major and varied as Freud, Marx and the philosophy of language. Only one of these (the Dostoevsky book) appeared under his own name during these years. Three others were published under different names (see section III of this introduction); some were partially lost during his forced moves; some disappeared when the Nazis burned down the publishing house that had accepted his large manuscript on the Erziehungsroman; some were "delayed'' forty-one years in their publication when journals that had accepted manuscripts were shut down, as happened to the Russian Contemporary in 1924; others, such as the Rabelais book, were considered too aberrant for publication, due to their emphasis on sex and body functions (see section II of this introduction).

Another factor that has clouded perception of the scope of Bakhtin's activity in the anglophone world, at least, is the tradition in which he was working. He was trained as a classicist during a period when the German model of philology dominated Russian universities; thus he inherited a certain heaviness of style and a predilection for abstraction that English or American readers, accustomed to a more essayistic prose, sometimes find heavy going. Bakhtin's style, while recognizably belonging to a Russian tradition of scholarly prose, is, nevertheless, highly idiosyncratic. Language in his texts works somewhat as language does in the novel, the genre that obsessed him all his life: according to Ian Watt (The Rise of the Novel), "the genre itself works by exhaustive presentation rather than by elegant concentration." The more we know about Bakhtin's life, the clearer it becomes that he was a supreme eccentric, of an order the Russians express better than we in their word chudak, which has overtones of such intense strangeness that it borders on chudo, a wonder. And this peculiarity is reflected not only in the strange history of his texts (why, ultimately, did he publish under so many names?), but in his style as well, if one may speak of a single style for one who was so concerned with "other-voicedness." Russians immediately sense this strangeness: again and again when we have gone to native speakers with questions about a peculiar usage of a familiar word or an unfamiliar coinage, the Russians have thrown up their hands or shaken their heads and smiled ruefully.

Another difficulty the reader must confront is the unfamiliar shadings Bakhtin gives to West European cultural history. He tends to ignore the available chapterization into familiar periods and -isms. It is not so much Periclean Athens or Augustan Rome that attracts him as it is the vagaries of the Hellenistic age. He is preoccupied by centuries usually ignored by others; and within these, he has great affection for figures who are even more obscure. A peculiar school of grammarians at Toulouse in the seventh century A.D. may appear to others as an obscure group working in a backwater during the darkest of the Dark Ages; for Bakhtin the work of these otherwise almost forgotten men constitutes an extremely important chapter in the human struggle to accommodate the mysteries of human language. He keeps returning to the Carolingian Revival or the interstitial periods between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. When he does cite a familiar period, he often tends to isolate an otherwise obscure figure within it—thus his focusing on Pigres of Halicarnassus or Ion of Chios among the Greeks, on Varro among the Romans; when dealing with the nineteenth century, it is the relatively unfamiliar Wezel or Musäus he cites.

Bakhtin throws a weird light on our received models of intellectual history. It is as if he set out to carnivalize—to use a verb that has become modishly transitive due to his own work on Rabelais—the normal periods and figures we use to define the relay of culture. Clearly, one could make such a perverse undertaking pay its way only if possessed of two prerequisites: enormous learning and a theory capable of sustaining a balance between such an aberrant history and more conventional historical models.

Of Bakhtin's preternatural erudition there can be no doubt—he belongs to the tradition that produced Spitzer, Curtius, Auerbach and, somewhat later, René Wellek. Many times when we have consulted specialists in the various fields from which Bakhtin so easily draws his recherché examples, it was only to be told that such and such a work did not exist, or, if it did, it was not "characteristic." A few days later, however, after some more digging or thinking, the same specialist would call to say that indeed there was such a work, and, although little known even to most experts, it was the most precisely correct text for illustrating the point Bakhtin sought to make by invoking it.

He has, then, a knowledge of West European civilization detailed enough to permit him to use traditional accounts as a dialogizing background to sustain the counter-model he will propose. And that counter-model is motivated by a theory that can rationalize not only its own subversions, but the effects of mainstream traditions as well.

I say theory and not system—the two do not always go hand in hand—because Bakhtin's motivating idea is in its essence opposed to any strict formalization. Other commentators, such as Tsvetan Todorov in a forthcoming book devoted to Bakhtin, have seen this as a weakness in his work. They have come to this conclusion, I believe, because they bring to Bakhtin's work expectations based on the kind of thinking characteristic of other major theorists who engage the same issues as Bakhtin.

Bakhtin is constantly working with what is emerging as the central preoccupation of our time—language. But unlike others who have made substantial contributions to our understanding of language in the twentieth century—Saussure, Hjelmslev, Benveniste and, above all, Roman Jakobson (all of whom are systematic to an extraordinary degree)—Bakhtin is not. If you expect a Jakobsonian order of systematicalness in Bakhtin, you are bound to be frustrated. This does not mean, however, that he is without a peculiar rigor of his own. It is rather that his concept of language stands in relation to others ;of the sort that occupy linguists) much as the novel stands in opposition to other, more formalized genres. That is, the novel—as Bakhtin more than anyone else has taught us to see—does not lack its organizing principles, but they are of a different order from those regulating sonnets or odes. It may be said Jakobson works with poetry because he has a Pushkinian love of order; Bakhtin, on the contrary, loves novels because he is a baggy monster.

At the heart of everything Bakhtin ever did—from what we know of his very earliest (lost) manuscripts to the very latest (still unpublished) work—is a highly distinctive concept of language. The conception has as its enabling a priori an almost Manichean sense of opposition and struggle at the heart of existence, a ceaseless battle between centrifugal forces that seek to keep things apart, and centripetal forces that strive to make things cohere. This Zoroastrian clash is present in culture as well as nature, and in the specificity of individual consciousness; it is at work in the even greater particularity of individual utterances. The most complete and complex reflection of these forces is found in human language, and the best transcription of language so understood is the novel.

Two things must immediately be added here. First, while language does serve to reflect this struggle, it is no passive stuff, no mere yielding clay. Language itself is no less immune from the effects of the struggle than anything else. Its nature as a system is even more fraught with the contest, which may be why it occupies so central a place in the activity of mind. Bakhtin, need it be said, is not working in this dichotomy of forces with the kind of binary opposition that has proved so important in structuralist linguistics (and so seductive to social scientists and humanists lusting for a greater degree of systematicalness). That opposition leads from human speech to computer language; it conduces, in other words, to machines. Bakhtin's sense of a duel between more widely implicated forces leads in the opposite direction and stresses the fragility and ineluctably historical nature of language, the coming and dying of meaning that it, as a phenomenon, shares with that other phenomenon it ventriloquates, man.

Secondly, language must not be understood in these essays in the restricted sense in which it occupies professional linguists. As Bakhtin says (in "Discourse in the Novel"), "At any given moment... a language is stratified not only into dialects in the strict sense of the word (i.e., dialects that are set off according to formal linguistic [especially phonetic] markers), but is...stratified as well into languages that are socio-ideological: languages belonging to professions, to genres, languages peculiar to particular generations, etc. This stratification and diversity of speech [razvorechivost'] will spread wider and penetrate to ever deeper levels so long as a language is alive and still in the process of becoming."

The two contending tendencies are not of equal force, and each has a different kind of reality attaching to it: centrifugal forces are clearly more powerful and ubiquitous—theirs is the reality of actual articulation. They are always in praesentia; they determine the way we actually experience language as we use it—and are used by it—in the dense particularity of our everyday lives. Unifying, centripetal forces are less powerful and have a complex ontological status. Their relation to centrifugal operations is akin to the interworking that anthropologists nominate as the activity of culture in modeling a completely different order called nature. As Bakhtin says (again in "Discourse"): "A unitary language is not something that is given [dan], but is in its very essence something that must be posited [zadan]—at every moment in the life of a language it opposes the realities of heteroglossia [raznorechie], but at the same time the [sophisticated] ideal [or primitive delusion] of a single, holistic language makes the actuality of its presence felt as a force resisting an absolute heteroglot state; it posits definite boundaries for limiting the potential chaos of variety, thus guaranteeing a more or less maximal mutual understanding...."

The term Bakhtin uses here, "heteroglossia" [raznorechie], is a master trope at the heart of all his other projects, one more fundamental than such other categories associated with his thought as "polyphony" or "carnivalization." These are but two specific ways in which the primary condition of heteroglossia manifests itself. Heteroglossia is Bakhtin's way of referring, in any utterance of any kind, to the peculiar interaction between the two fundamentals of all communication. On the one hand, a mode of transcription must, in order to do its work of separating out texts, be a more or less fixed system. But these repeatable features, on the other hand, are in the power of the particular context in which the utterance is made; this context can refract, add to, or, in some cases, even subtract from the amount and kind of meaning the utterance may be said to have when it is conceived only as a systematic manifestation independent of context.

This extraordinary sensitivity to the immense plurality of experience more than anything else distinguishes Bakhtin from other moderns who have been obsessed with language. I emphasize experience here because Bakhtin's basic scenario for modeling variety is two actual people talking to each other in a specific dialogue at a particular time and in a particular place. But these persons would not confront each other as sovereign egos capable of sending messages to each other through the kind of uncluttered space envisioned by the artists who illustrate most receiversender models of communication. Rather, each of the two persons would be a consciousness at a specific point in the history of defining itself through the choice it has made—out of all the possible existing languages available to it at that moment—of a discourse to transcribe its intention in this specific exchange.

The two will, like everyone else, have been born into an environment in which the air is already aswarm with names. Their development as individuals—and in this Bakhtin's thought parallels in suggestive ways that of Vygotsky in Russia (see Emerson, 1978) and Lacan in France Isee Bruss, in Titunik's translation of Volosinov's Freudianism, 1976)—will have been prosecuted as a gradual appropriation of a specific mix of discourses that are capable of best mediating their own intentions, rather than those which sleep in the words they use before they use them. Thus each will seek, by means of intonation, pronunciation, lexical choice, gesture, and so on, to send out a message to the other with a minimum of interference from the otherness constituted by pre-existing meanings (inhering in dictionaries or ideologies) and the otherness of the intentions present in the other person in the dialogue.

Implicit in all this is the notion that all transcription systems— including the speaking voice in a living utterance—are inadequate to the multiplicity of the meanings they seek to convey. My voice gives the illusion of unity to what I say; I am, in fact, constantly expressing a plenitude of meanings, some intended, others of which I am unaware. (There is in this obsession with voice and speech a parallel with the attempts of two important recent thinkers—both in other ways very different from Bakhtin—to come to grips with the way intimacy with our own voice conduces to the illusion of presence: Husserl in the Logical Investigations and Derrida in his 1967 essay "Speech and Phenomenon.")

It is the need to confront this multiplicity in a principled way that impels Bakhtin to coin some of his more outre terms (the word "heteroglossia" itself, "word-with-a-loophole," "wordwith-a-sidewards-glance," "intonational quotation marks" and so forth). He uses these rather than the more conventional terminology we associate with a linguistic concern for language first of all because traditional linguistics has taken little heed of the problem of alterity in language. Bakhtin, like Austin (How to Do Things with Words, 1962), Searle (Speech Acts, 1969) and particularly Grice (the legendary but still unpublished 1967 James lectures on Logic and Conversation), stresses the speech aspect of language, utterance, to emphasize the immediacy of the kind of meaning he is after. He does so as well to highlight his contention that language is never—except for certain linguists—what linguists say it is. There is no such thing as a "general language," a language that is spoken by a general voice, that may be divorced from a specific saying, which is charged with particular overtones. Language, when it means, is somebody talking to somebody else, even when that someone else is one's own inner addressee.

Bakhtin's theory of metalanguage is extremely complicated and deserves detailed study. I have merely alluded to it here in order to provide a context for the more particular subject matter unifying these four essays—the novel. I began with Bakhtin's insistence on the primacy of speech because what he has to say about novels is incomprehensible if the emphasis on utterance is not always kept in mind. In section IV we shall once again take up the relationship between Bakhtin's ideas about language and his distinctive theory of the novel's extraliterary importance.


Bakhtin was born 16 November 1895 in Orel into an old family of the nobility, dating from at least the fourteenth century, that no longer owned property at the time of his birth. Bakhtin's father was a bank official who worked in several cities as Mikhail Mikhailovich was growing up. The early years of his childhood were spent in Orel, then in Vilnius (Lithuania) and finally Odessa, where he finished the gymnasium and entered the historical and philological faculty of the local university in 1913. He soon transferred to Petersburg University, where his brother Nikolaj (later professor of Greek and Linguistics at Birmingham University) was a student.

It was an exhilarating time to be in St. Petersburg. There was the stimulation of attacks and counterattacks by Symbolists, Acmeists and Futurists in poetry. Criticism, too, took on a new urgency and glamor: the very year Bakhtin came to the city Shklovsky published the article that was to be the first salvo in the battles that raged around the Formalists. The university was an especially exciting place to be, notably in the areas of Bakhtin's interests. D. K. Petrov, the distinguished Hispanist and student of Baudouin de Courtenay, the philosopher A. I. Vvedenskij and Aleksandr N. Veselovskij, a founder of the modern study of comparative literature, were teaching at this time. But Bakhtin was influenced particularly by the great classicist F. F. Zelinskij; some of Bakhtin's key concepts can be traced back to suggestions in Zelinskij's works, primarily those dealing with the Roman oratorical tradition. During these years Bakhtin laid the foundations of his prodigious knowledge of philosophy, especially classical and German thinkers. Vvedenskij was the leading Russian Kantian, and N. O. Losskij, another of Bakhtin's teachers, had studied under Windelband and Wundt. In 1918 Bakhtin finished the university and moved to Nevel', a west Russian city, where he taught school for two years.

It was here that the members of the first "Bakhtin Circle" (with the exception of P. N. Medvedev, who became associated with it in 1920 in Vitebsk) came together: Lev Pumpianskij, later professor in the Philological Faculty at Leningrad University; V. N. Volosinov, later a linguist, but at this time a musicologist and would-be Symbolist poet; M. V. Judina, later one of Russia's greatest concert pianists; I. I. Sollertinskij, later artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic; and B. M. Zubakin, archeologist, Mason and grand eccentric. There were others as well who attended discussions less frequently, but who shared the passionate interest of the group in threshing out literary, religious and political topics. But the most frequent topic of discussion, the subject of most burning concern for the majority of the group—certainly for Bakhtin—was German philosophy. At this point Bakhtin thought of himself essentially as a philosopher and not as a literary scholar.

A very important member of the group for him, then, was Matvej Isaich Kagan, later an editor of the monumental Encyclopedia of Soviet Energy Resources, but at this time still a professional philosopher—a philosopher, moreover, who had just returned from Germany, where he had spent almost ten years studying at Marburg and Berlin. He had been close to the Marburg Neo-Kantians: he translated Natorp and was highly thought of by Hermann Cohen and Ernst Cassirer. Kagan was Bakhtin's best friend in these years, in some ways filling the personal and intellectual gap left by the departure of Bakhtin's brother, Nikolaj. We can see traces of Kagan's influence in the concern for such NeoKantian preoccupations as axiology and the need to rethink the mind/world opposition that are present in Bakhtin's first published work, "Art and Responsibility." This small 1919 piece is actually a précis of a major work on moral philosophy to which Bakhtin devoted himself while in Nevel' that was never published (except in portions, and then only sixty years later, in 1979.

In 1920 he moved to Vitebsk, in the same general area. Vitebsk was at that time a cultural boom town, an island of light in the dark currents of revolution and civil war, a refuge for such artists as El Lisitskij, Malevich and Marc Chagall. Several prominent scientists also lived in the Belorussian city at this time, as well as leading musicians from the former Mariinskij Theater who taught at the Conservatory. A lively journal, Iskusstvo, was started, and there were constant lectures and discussions.

Two events of great personal importance occurred during the Vitebsk period: in 1921 Bakhtin married Elena Aleksandrovna Okolovic, who was indispensable to him until her death in 1971; and in 1923 the bone disease that was to plague Bakhtin all his life—and that would lead to the amputation of a leg in 1938— made its first appearance. In 1924 Bakhtin moved back to Leningrad, working at the Historical Institute and consulting for the State Publishing House. Bakhtin was finally moved to let some of his work see the light of day.

In the fate of an early article we can see the emergence of a vicious pattern that was to repeat itself throughout his life: continually, Bakhtins manuscripts were suppressed or actually lost, by chance or by the opposition of determined enemies. Just as Bakhtin's "On the Question of the Methodology of Aesthetics in Written Works" was about to appear, Russkij sovremennik, the journal that had commissioned the piece, ceased publication. Thus this seminal work was not published until fifty-one years iater. These were nevertheless fruitful years for Bakhtin, during which he continued his constant discussions, now with a circle made up of such friends and followers as the poet N. A. Kljuev, the renowned biologist I. I. Kanaev, the experimental writers Konstantin Vaginov and Daniil Kharms, the Indologist M. I. Tubianskij.

Although Bakhtin had been studying and thinking ceaselessly during these years, his first major published work finally appeared only in 1929, the magisterial Problems of Dostoevsky's Art, in which Bakhtin's revolutionary concept of "dialogism" (polyphony) was first announced to the world. The book, controversial as only a radically new vision of an old topic can be, was nevertheless well received. Some (including the Minister of Education and the leading Party intellectual Anatoly Lunacharsky) even recognized it to be the revolutionary document that it has indeed proved to be. The impact of the book was muffled, however, because just as it appeared, Bakhtin was sent to the wilds of Kazakhstan. He spent the next six years in exile as a bookkeeper in the obscure town of Kustanaj. Several of his closest associates disappeared forever during the purges of the late 1930s. Bakhtin somehow continued to work even in Kustanaj, and several of his most important essays, such as "Discourse [Slovo] in the Novel," were written during these years. He was supplied books from the Saltykov-Shchedrin Library in Leningrad and the Lenin Library in Moscow by his friends.

In 1936 he was able to teach courses in the Mordovian Pedagogical Institute in Saransk and in 1937 moved to the town of Kimry, two hundred kilometers from Moscow, where he finished work on a major book devoted to the eighteenth-century German novel (Erziehungsroman). This manuscript was accepted by the Sovetskij Pisatel' Publishing House, but the only copy of it disappeared during the confusion of the German invasion—yet another example of the hex at work in Bakhtin's publishing career. The only other copy of this manuscript Bakhtin—an inveterate smoker—used as paper to roll his own cigarettes during the dark days of the German invasion (which gives some idea, perhaps, of how cavalierly Bakhtin regarded his own thoughts once they had already been thought through). It was only after the most strenuous arguments by Vadim Kozinov and Sergej Bocarov that Bakhtin could be persuaded first of all to reveal the whereabouts of what unpublished manuscripts he had (in a rat-infested woodshed in Saransk) and then to permit them to be retranscribed for publication.

From 1940 to the end of World War II Bakhtin lived in the environs of Moscow. In 1940 he had submitted a long dissertation on Rabelais, but it could not be defended until after the war was over. In 1946 and 1949 his defense of the dissertation split the Moscow scholarly world into two camps: the original and unorthodox manuscript was accepted by the official opponents appointed to preside over the defense, but other professors felt strongly enough about Bakhtin to intervene against its acceptance. There were several stormy meetings (one lasting seven hours until the government finally stepped in) in the end the State Accrediting Bureau denied his doctorate. Thus Rabelais and Folk Culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, which has since gone through many editions in several languages, had to wait until 1965, nineteen years later, before it was published.

But Bakhtin's friends were no less determined than his enemies, and a group that had been attracted to him during his stay in Saransk in 1936 now invited him back to be the chairman of the General Literature Department. Thus began Bakhtin's long and affectionate relationship with the institution that, when it was upgraded from teacher's college to university in 1957, made him head of the expanded Department of Russian and World Literature. A beloved teacher himself (whenever he lectured the hall was sure to be crowded), he influenced generations of young people who went out to teach. In August of 1961 Bakhtin was forced to retire due to declining health. In 1969 he returned to Moscow for medical treatment, living in the city until his death on 7 March 1975.

These last years were busy and fulfilling for Bakhtin, finally bringing him the fame and influence he so long had been denied. A group of young scholars at Moscow University (under V. Turbin) and at the Gor'kij Institute, most notably V. Kozinov and S. Bocarov (yet another Bakhtin Circle), energetically took up his cause. He was also aided by the eminent linguist and theoretician, V. V. Ivanov. The Dostoevsky book was republished in 1963, largely due to the extraordinary efforts of Kozinov, whose role in this affair does him honor. Its appearance created a sensation that helped to rekindle interest in basic questions of literary study. In 1965 the Rabelais book was published following a series of programmatic articles in leading journals. In 1975 a collection of Bakhtin's major essays outlining a historical poetics for the novel, Questions of Literature and Aesthetics (from which the four essays in this volume are taken), came out soon after his death. Just before he died he learned that Yale University was trying to arrange for him to be awarded an honorary degree.


There is a great controversy over the authorship of three books that have been ascribed to Bakhtin: Freudianism (1927) and Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929; 2nd ed. 1930), both published under the name of V. N. Volosinov, and The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (1928), published under the name of P. N. Medvedev. This is not the place to go into the arcana of Bakhtin's textology. The question is of a complexity that requires extended treatment on its own. The view of the present editor is that ninety percent of the text of the three books in question is indeed the work of Bakhtin himself.


The most immediate contribution these essays make is to the theory of the novel, a particularly vexed area of literary scholarship.

The enormous success of the novel in the nineteenth century has obscured the fact that for most of its history it was a marginal genre, little studied and frequently denounced. Even in an age such as our own, when there is no dearth of books devoted to "the novel," there is very little agreement as to what the word means. Consider three examplary titles in which the substantive "novel" is preceded by the definite article: Lukacs' Theory of the Novel (1920), Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (1957) and Lucien Goldmann's Towards a Sociology of the Novel (1964, English tr. 1975). These are all important books that have greatly advanced our understanding of certain kinds of novels, but each in its own way dramatizes the same shortcoming: they seek to elevate one kind of novel into a definition of the novel as such (as does René Girard in another very influential book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel [1961]). They lack a field theory capable of encompassing not only the texts nominated by the others as novels, but two millennia of long prose fictions preceding the seventeenth century—the period when, according to consensus, the novel experienced its "birth." (The same view holds that the novel "rose" in the eighteenth century and "triumphed" in the nineteenth—its "death" in the twentieth century is a foregone conclusion by the same historical logic.)

A major reason why so little powerfully syncretic work has been done in the area of novels, even by those who recognize the dilemma posed by excluding pre-seventeenth-century narrative such as Scholes and Kellogg (The Nature of Narrative [1966]), is that the absolute novelty of the novel has not been adequately recognized. Bakhtin's advantage over everyone else working on novel theory is that he is able to include more texts from the past in his scheme than anyone else—and this because, paradoxically, he more than others perceives the novel as new. Not new when it is said to have "arisen," but new whenever that kind of text made its appearance, as it has done since at least the ancient Greeks, a text that merely found its most comprehensive form in Cervantes and those who have come after. In order to see what kind of text might have so radical a novelty, we shall have to rethink the basic categories of genre and style.

Syncretic chronicles of such genres as the ode, the lyric or tragedy may be written extending back to classical times, because each such history will have as its subject a set of formal characteristics so fixed—from the earliest days of European culture— that nuanced modulations (in their surface features, at least) can be recognized with relative ease. It is probably for this reason that such discursively homogeneous genres accord so well with received ideas about the periodization of general history into such chapters as "classical antiquity," the "Age of Louis XIV" and so forth.

So militantly protean a form as the novel raises serious problems for those who seek to confine it to the linear shape of most histories. The difficulty is compounded if we recognize further that such histories usually begin by presupposing the very organizing categories that it is the nature of novels to resist. Histories are like novels in that they set out to provide more or less comprehensive accounts of social systems. Histories occupy themselves with relationships between the strata of legal codes, religious beliefs, economic organization, family structure and so forth, in order to create a series of moments in which the interaction of these forces can be seen in their simultaneity as well as their continuity. And novels, too, concern themselves more or less with such interrelationships, the particular assemblage of discourses that define specific cultures.

But histories differ from novels in that they insist on a homology between the sequence of their own telling, the form they impose to create a coherent explanation in the form of a narrative on the one hand, and the sequence of what they tell on the other. This templating of what is enunciated with the act of enunciation is a narrative consequence of the historian's professional desire to tell "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist." The novel, by contrast, dramatizes the gaps that always exist between what is told and the telling of it, constantly experimenting with social, discursive and narrative asymmetries (the formal teratology that led Henry James to call them "fluid puddings").

History has perhaps most often been compared with the novel because both presume a certain completeness of inventory. Each in its own way strives to give narrative shape to material of encyclopedic variety and plentitude. Thus, a good history of Russia, for instance, might very well seek to be what Belinsky said Evgenij Onegin was, "an encyclopedia of Russian life": like the novel, such a history would describe rank, manners, differences between the capital and the provinces and so forth. But as Bakhtin has said of Pushkin's work, it is not an encyclopedia that merely catalogs inert institutions, the brute things of everyday life: "Russian life speaks in all its voices [in Evgenij Onegin], in all the languages and styles of the era. Literary language is not represented in the novel [as it is in other genres] as a unitary, completely finished off, indubitably adequate language—it is represented precisely as a living mix of varied and opposing voices [raznorechivost']."

The emphasis on social variety dramatized as contests between different voices speaking various intralanguages of the abstract system we call "the" Russian language is what defines the "devilish difference" [djavol'skaja raznica] making Evgenij Onegin a novel in verse, and not just a long poem. And insofar as Evgenij Onegin is a dialogized system made up of the images of "languages, styles and consciousnesses that are concrete and inseparable from language," it is typical of all novels. It dramatizes in these features both the difficulty of defining the novel as a genre and the reason the question of its history is so fraught. Other genres are constituted by a set of formal features for fixing language that pre-exist any specific utterance within the genre. Language, in other words, is assimilated to form. The novel by contrast seeks to shape its form to languages; it has a completely different relationship to languages from other genres since it constantly experiments with new shapes in order to display the variety and immediacy of speech diversity. It is thus best conceived either as a supergenre, whose power consists in its ability to engulf and ingest all other genres {the different and separate languages peculiar to each), together with other stylized but nonliterary forms of language; or not a genre in any strict, traditional sense at all. In either case it is obvious that the history of what might be called novels, when they are defined by their proclivity to display different languages interpenetrating each other, will be extremely complicated.

The only history of the novel adequate to such complexity has been proposed by Mikhail Bakhtin, whose definition of the genre as a consciously structured hybrid of languages I have used in the preceding remarks. Bakhtin has succeeded in forging a history capable of comprehending the very earliest classical texts jsuch as the Margites traditionally ascribed to Homer, Hellenistic and Roman texts and medieval romances, as well as the titles that are usually advanced in more traditional accounts of the genre, such as Guzman Alfarache and Don Quixote. It is a history that includes as well elements from the oral tradition of folklore going back to prehistoric times.

And Bakhtin has been able to do this because he has grasped that the novel cannot be studied with the same set of ideas about the relation of language to style that we bring to bear on other genres. Most versions of literary stylistics—whether Spitzer's or Vinogradovs—assume that language operates more or less as professional linguists tell us it does, both in our everyday lives and in hterary texts. Literary texts simply intensify certain capabilities of language that are potential in spoken speech as well: "Poetry is violence practiced on ordinary speech," to paraphrase the young Jakobson. Style in this view means the sum of the operations performed by the poet in order to accomplish the violence necessary to mark the text off as literature.

Valuable work has been done in most genres by critics presuming style so understood. The reason is that not only most critics, but most genres begin with this assumption: the homogeneity of the genre corresponds to ideas about the privileged status of a unitary, centripetalizing language shared by its practitioners on the one hand and its students on the other.

The novel is utterly different from such genres because it presumes a completely other relationship to language. But, according to Bakhtin, this has not yet been perceived by its students who—if they are not utterly lost in the morass of gossipy "character analysis," ethical high-mindedness and watered-down psychology that frequently passes as novel criticism—continue to view the novel through the optic of a traditional stylistic that has proved so successful with other text types, but is quite inappropriate to novels.

The most recent form this approach has taken is a concern no longer for a Lansonian attention to the language of the text, but rather for the "language" of the plot—what, following Propp's ground-breaking work, has been called the morphology or syntagmatics of narrative. Attempts have been made to apply to the novel the kind of structural analysis that has been so remarkably successful with short formulaic forms such as folktales, detective stories and industrial folklore, that is, serial novels for children (Tom Swift, etc.). The work of men such as Greimas in France (Du sens, 1970) or Van Dijk in Holland (Some Aspects of Text Grammars, 1972) has led others (such as Meir Sternberg ["What Is Exposition?" in The Theory of the Novel, ed. John Halperin, 1974]) to conclude that the novel, too, might lend itself to tree diagrams and Freytag pyramids. Such critics forget what Eikhenbaum pointed out in 1925: that "the novel and the short story are forms not only different in kind but also inherently at odds...." ("O. Henry and the Short Story"). The lugubrious results of these analyses serve to confirm what Bakhtin concluded long ago: "The utter inadequacy of [most existing] literary theory is exposed when it is forced to deal with the novel" (see "Epic and Novel"). The situation he decried in the thirties is no better in the seventies. This situation Bakhtin addresses in the four essays in this collection.


By the time Bakhtin came to write these essays he had completed the Dostoevsky book, which made what appeared at the time to be rather extravagant claims for that author's uniqueness. The second edition (1963) has attached to it new material that seeks rather to place the Dostoevskian novel into a tradition. The new material and the point of view that it entails are drawn from work on the history of the novel Bakhtin pursued during the thirty-four years that intervened between the two editions. In those years Bakhtin came to regard the Dostoevskian novel not so much as an absolutely unprecedented event in the history of the genre, but rather as the purest expression of what always had been implicit in it. Viewing the history of the novel through the optic of the Dostoevskian example had revolutionary consequences. The novel ceases to be "merely one genre among many" ("Epic and Novel"). It becomes not only "the leading hero in the drama of literary development in our time" ("Epic and Novel"), but the most significant force at work even in those early periods when most other scholars would argue that there were no novels being written at all.

Such scholars would, within their own terms, be correct in asserting that there were no novels in Plato's Athens or during the Middle Ages, or at least no novel as we have come to know it. But Bakhtin is clearly not referring to that concept of a novel that begins with Cervantes or Richardson. These books, and especially the nineteenth-century psychological novel that evolved from them, have become the canon of the genre-novel. The majority of literary scholars are most at home when dealing with canons, which is why Bakhtin said that literary theory is helpless to deal with the novel. Rather, "novel" is the name Bakhtin gives to whatever force is at work within a given literary system to reveal the limits, the artificial constraints of that system. Literary systems are comprised of canons, and "novelization" is fundamentally anticanonical. It will not permit generic monologue. Always it will insist on the dialogue between what a given system will admit as literature and those texts that are otherwise excluded from such a definition of literature. What is more conventionally thought of as the novel is simply the most complex and distilled expression of this impulse.

The history of the novel so conceived is very long, but it exists outside the bounds of what traditional scholars would think of as strictly literary history. Bakhtin's history would be charted, among other ways, in devaluation of a given culture's higher literary forms: the parodies of knightly romances (Cervantes), pastorals (Sorel), sentimental fictions (Sterne, Fielding). But these texts are merely late examples of a tendency that has been abroad at least since the ancient Greeks. Bakhtin comes very close to naming Socrates as the first novelist, since the gadfly role he played, and which he played out in the drama of precisely the dialogue, is more or less what the role of the novel always has been. That role has been assumed by such unexpected forms as the confession, the utopia, the epistle or the Menippean satire, in which Bakhtin is particularly interested. Even the drama (Ibsen and other Naturalists), the long poem (Childe Harold or Don fuan) or the lyric (as in Heine) become masks for the novel during the nineteenth century. As formerly distinct literary genres are subjected to the novel's intensifying antigeneric power, their systematic purity is infected and they become "novelized."

The first essay in this volume seeks to establish the distinctiveness of the novel by opposing it to the epic. What emerges is a definition of novels as peculiarly suited to our post-lapsarian, post-industrial civilization, since it thrives on precisely the kind of diversity the epic (and by extension, myth and all other traditional forms of narrative) sets out to purge from its world. The essay posits a novel defined by what could be called the rule of genre inclusiveness: the novel can include, ingest, devour other genres and still retain its status as a novel, but other genres cannot include novelistic elements without impairing their own identity as epics, odes or any other fixed genre.

This essay will inevitably be compared with the use Lukács, in his Theory of the Novel, makes of the same contrast, and will, no doubt, be compared as well to the way Auerbach (Mimesis [1946]) distinguishes between Homeric and Biblical texts. Bakhtin differs from Lukacs in his evaluation of the novel's fallen state: just as his concept of heteroglossia is a happy redaction of the conditions otherwise so gloomily charted by Derrida's epigones as "differance," so his concept of the novel's relation to epic is an affirming version of what the pessimistic Lukács means when he says the novel is the characteristic text of an age of "Absolute sinfulness." Bakhtin differs from Auerbach (with whom he shares, otherwise, many suggestive parallels, both in his life and in his work) in that the Bible could never represent the novel in a contrast with epic, since both, Bible and epic, would share a presumption of authority, a claim to absolute language, utterly foreign to the novel's joyous awareness of the inadequacies of its own language. But since the novel is aware of the impossibility of full meaning, presence, it is free to exploit such a lack to its own hybridizing purposes.

The second essay, "From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse," is less conventional than the first, and outlines in a most economical way how a number of disparate texts from the distant past finally coalesced into what we now know as the modern novel. It is a thumbnail history of the force Bakhtin calls "novelness," an epistemological capability larger than any concrete expression of it before the novel as a text type emerges in its own right.

The third essay introduces one of Bakhtin's coinages in its title. "Chronotope" is a category that no brief introduction (much less glossary) can adequately adumbrate. The long essay uses the concept as yet another way to define the distinctiveness of the novel by means of its history, using differing ratios of time-space projection as the unit for charting changes.

The fourth essay in this volume, "Discourse in the Novel," is one of Bakhtin's most suggestive and, with the exception of certain chapters in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, the most comprehensive statement of his philosophy of language. It has as its skeleton yet another model for a history of discourse that eventuates in the supreme self-consciousness (consciousness of the other) marked by the heteroglossia of the modern novel.

It will be clear from even so cursory an overview that the essays in this volume have been arranged in order of their complexity, with the simplest and most conventional appearing first, and the most difficult appearing last.



“This magnificently edited and translated volume can be the beginning of a dialogue that will go beyond the monographic works of Bakhtin available in English up to now.”
Comparative Literature


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