Mikhail Bakhtin Questions and Answers

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Discuss Bakhtin's theory of the polyphonic novel and his notion of carnivalization.

Bakhtin's theory of the polyphonic novel refers to a type of work, such as The Brothers Karamazov, in which each character is accorded an autonomous, subjective voice. "Carnivalization" is the technique by which a writer creates the spirit of "carnival," in which all the normal routines and hierarchies of society are suspended and characters are able to meet as equals.

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In his seminal work, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Bakhtin developed his theory of the polyphonic novel in response to Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. He defines a polyphonic work as one possessing multiple, equally cogent and compelling points of view. It is thus the reverse of a thesis-novel in offering no clear conclusion and ultimately remaining ambiguous in its interpretation. He also describes such a work as "unfinalizable," in that the characters, always on the threshold of a decision, can never be limited by any external description or pattern of causality.

The Brothers Karamazov fulfills Bakhtin's concept of the polyphonic novel, in that it presents the struggle over the existence of God between the characters of aspiring monk Alyosha and the atheist intellectual Ivan in their full subjective natures and with equal force.

"Carnival," as defined in the work of Bakhtin, is the ultimate manifestation of the "unfinalizable." It's a state produced by the writer's technique of "carnivalization," in which routines, norms, and hierarchies are dissolved and those who would usually be separated by social status and opposing types are able to meet as equals and engage in intersubjective dialogue.

The carnival spirit can be an aspect of the dramatic, as in the explosive clashes of opposing personalities in the novels of Dostoevsky, but it is most often found in the works of comedy and satire, such as those of Rabelais, in which the upending of convention allows for the type of outrageous, surrealistic, and scandalous material repressed by routine.

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