The Epic and the Novel

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.”

The Dialogic Imagination Dialogism and the Novel

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.

The Dialogic Imagination Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 generic categorization. Frequently in these essays, Bakhtin uses the novel as a vehicle for his exploration of ideas about the nature of language and its relationship to social structures.

The first essay in the volume, “Epic and Novel,” compares these two genres. While previous critics believed that the novel evolved from the epic, Bakhtin finds the two forms antithetical. The epic lauds a complete and irrecoverable past, while the novel, fond of inconclusiveness and multiplicity, predicts a vital future. For Bakhtin, the epic has unalterable characteristics, including ties to a national past that serves as both its subject and its source. He argues that, because its origins predate written language and are memory-based, the epic is separated by a chasm from contemporary reality. Bound as it is to an unrecoverable past—a monologic past that cannot engage with the present—the epic is a dinosaur, a lifeless genre. The epic is connected to an idealized past with no connection to the present. The dead speak, but the living cannot reply.

In contrast to the static epic, Bakhtin notes, the novel resists containment. Attempts to define the novel, he observes, are always accompanied by caveats: The novel is multilayered and plot-based, except when it is not; the novel is a love story, except when it is not; the novel is written as prose, except when it is not. While scholars traditionally date the emergence of the novel to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), Bakhtin traces its roots further back to folktales that disrupt authoritative texts by their elicitation of laughter. He recognizes novelistic tendencies as early as Plato’s Socratic dialogues (c. fourth century b.c.e.). Plato’s use of blended dialects, his penchant for irony, and the connections he draws to a living reality—a reference to people expressing ideas active in their own time—allows these works to engage in dialogue with readers in the future. Bakhtin suggests that the novel defies classification and remains a living genre because of its tendency to borrow from...

(The entire section is 1464 words.)