The Epic and the Novel (World Philosophers and Their Works)
The first of The Dialogic Imagination’s four essays, “Epic and Novel,” was written in 1941 and first published in 1970 (and in expanded form in the 1975 collection). It offers a succinct and relatively straightforward introduction to one of Bakhtin’s most important ideas, in effect defining one genre, the novel, by contrasting it with another, the epic. According to Bakhtin, what distinguishes the epic is the complete separation of its world from contemporary reality (the time of its narration) and by means of this separation, the creation of a valorized past: absolute, closed, complete, uncontaminated by the present, above all unchanging, and therefore both inhuman and ahistorical.
The novel is everything the epic is not. It is alive, liberated, and liberating; this is its aesthetic and its ethic. Anticanonical, unfinalized and unfinalizable, the novel is less a carefully defined genre than an antigenre, whose plasticity and formlessness define or constitute its form. The novel intersects with other genres, which it critically examines, using parody and other means to expose their limitations and conventionality. Freely absorbing other literary as well as subliterary and extraliterary forms, the novel proves itself the most omnivorous, fluid, and organic of the genres and therefore the most resistant to theoretical explanation. Written one year earlier (1940), and first published three years earlier (1967), the collection’s second...
(The entire section is 279 words.)
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Dialogism and the Novel (World Philosophers and Their Works)
The last essay in The Dialogic Imagination is also the earliest of the four to be written (1934-1935) and arguably the most interesting if at times the most confusing. As Bakhtin points out at the beginning of “Discourse and the Novel,” “The principal idea of this essay is that the study of verbal art must overcome the divorce between an abstract formal’ approach and an equally abstract ideological’ approach.” Defining the novel as a diversity of voices and speech types, Bakhtin here contrasts it not with the epic (as in The Dialogic Imagination’s opening essay) but with poetry. Unlike poetry, which Bakhtin faults for giving rise to the idea of “a purely poetic, extrahistorical language,” novelistic discourse “cannot forget or ignore.” Against the monologism of poetry (and the epic) and its “Ptolomaic” conception of language, he posits the novel’s essential dialogism, its Galilean “decentering” of meaning and liberating sense of “linguistic homelessness.” This liberation gives rise both to the centripetal forces that seek to limit meaning and to a speaker’s yearning not just to speak but to be heard and responded to—important ideas that Bakhtin discusses elsewhere. Rather than excluding or limiting heteroglossia (“another’s speech in another’s language,” serving two speakers, each with his or her own intentions), the novel intensifies it. Indeed, Bakhtin explains the development of the novel as “a...
(The entire section is 351 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The Dialogic Imagination by Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin comprises four essays that examine the novel as a living genre, one that resists classification in terms of its form, function, and placement in literary history. The word “dialogic” in the title distinguishes between dialogue (two or more people communicating interactively through language) and monologue (one person speaking, thinking, or writing in solitude). Bakhtin views language as a duality; it is both an established structure of meaning that exists prior to a language user and a unique production of meaning made immediate by a language user. Meaning is constantly created and recreated through dialogic processes. Bakhtin believes that the novel is uniquely dialogic in contrast to other genres that tend to be monologic. Imaginatively and practically, novels engage in conversations with other works of literature, those that predate them and those yet to be written. Additionally, a dialogic relationship exists between author and reader.
The four essays in The Dialogic Imagination are works of literary theory unified by their focus on the novel as a distinct and developing genre. Bakhtin concerns himself with the unique nature of the novel, its relationship to other genres, and its origins and development. Compared with other genres whose patterns are established and fixed, such as the epic, the novel according to Bakhtin is a fluid, developing form, one that resists...
(The entire section is 1464 words.)