The Epic and the Novel

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 essay, “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” follows much the same line of thought. It traces the novel back to its roots in those forms (Socratic dialogue, Menippean satire, folklore, carnival, popular laughter) which, unlike the epic, emphasize what is low, present, contingent, and parodic. These are the forms that prepare the way for the novel as “the genre of becoming.”

Dialogism and the Novel

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 function of the deepening of its dialogic essence,” which leaves “fewer and fewer neutral, hard elements” outside its relativizing gaze.

Bakhtin turns his attention to the stages in the novel’s development. One of his most interesting observations concerns the difference he finds in the way the Baroque novelists of the eighteenth century approached heteroglossia and incorporated it in their work, whether condescendingly from above or more enthusiastically from below. Another is the part played in the novel’s development by the English comic novel with its parodic recycling and stylization of literary language. Unfortunately, not all of this important essay is quite so clear or provocative, least of all the perhaps overly fine distinctions he makes between different kinds of hybrid constructions.