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.”