The Dialogic Imagination

by Mikhail Bakhtin
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401

The Dialogic Imagination is a compilation of essays by Russian philosopher, literary theorist, and critic Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin, published in 1975 in Moscow. The volume contains four essays from Questions of literature and aesthetics (Russian: Voprosy literatury i estetiki), two shorter and two longer, arranged according to complexity: "Epic and Novel" (1941), "From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse" (1940), "Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel" (1937–1938), and "Discourse in the Novel" (1934–1935). In them, Bakhtin discusses the nature and history of the novel genre, and literature and language in general.

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In the first essay, “Epic and Novel,” Bakhtin compares the Novel and the Epic and argues that the novel is “the leading hero in the drama of literary development in our time." According to his theory, a works in a fixed genre, such as epics or odes, can’t have novelistic elements, because then they would cease to be epics or odes. In contrast, a novel can incorporate other literary genres within its structure and still remain a novel.

In the second essay, “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” Bakhtin presents a brief history of the novel, starting from Greek literature and ending with the Renaissance period. In other words, he shows the birth of the modern novel genre.

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In the third essay, "Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel," Bakhtin introduces the concept of the chronotope as an organization of time and space, which is another way of defining the complexity and uniqueness of the novel, by emphasizing the importance of reality and world-building. He writes that the chronotope is “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature." However, he also mentions that the chronotope cannot be precisely defined, as it is constantly changing.

In the fourth and final essay, "Discourse in the Novel," Bakhtin presents a lengthy and detailed analysis on the philosophy of language. In it, he provides another discourse on the modern novel genre, arguing that the novel is a “dialogue of languages.” This is the most complex essay in the collection.

Essentially, The Dialogic Imagination presents Bakhtin's most profound theories on the novel, language, and narrative. He explains how the novel genre, through dialogue and a variety of language techniques, gives insight into culture, society, and history and presents a plethora of new characterizations and worlds in which authors are free to explore the limits of literary creation.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1365

The Dialogic Imagination comprises four of the six essays originally published under the title Voprosy literatury i estetiki (1975; questions of literature and aesthetics). Made available for the first time in 1981 in competent, highly readable translations by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, the essays—“Epos i roman” (“Epic and Novel”), “Iz predistorii romannogo slova” (“From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse”), “Formy vremeni i xronotopa v romane” (“Forms of Time and the Chronotope in the Novel”), and “Slovo v romane” (“Discourse in the Novel”)—all date from Mikhail Bakhtin’s middle period, the mid-1930’s through the early 1940’s. Nevertheless, the four provide an excellent introduction to Bakhtin’s overall critical method and larger theory of dialogism, to his characteristic style (at once repetitious, hortatory, and lucid), and to his familiarity with the full historical range of Western literature, from the earliest Greek writings through late nineteenth and early twentieth century novels.

The key to Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism is his concept of heteroglossia (literally, “other languages”), which Bakhtin defines as “the dialogue of languages as it exists in a given era.” This diversity of languages, which Bakhtin believes has largely gone unremarked by literary scholars, manifests itself in various ways, both covertly and, especially in certain novels (those of Fyodor Dostoevski in particular), more openly. In any given work or utterance it is possible to distinguish words which belong to, or derive from, the work or utterance of another, or, more accurately, several, or even many, others. Thus does Bakhtin come to identify the “polyphonic” quality of all speech, including the written or literary, and the fact that all discourse is double voiced. All discourse exhibits that quality which literary works tend to foreground to one degree or another: intertextuality (a term coined by Julia Kristeva in her seminal essay on Bakhtin and subsequently made fashionable by the deconstructionist critics and their followers). The polyphony which marks all discourse becomes especially noticeable and notable in the novel, for it is the novelist, Bakhtin believes, who “welcomes the heteroglossia and language diversity of the literary and extraliterary language into his own work not only not weakening them but even intensifying them.”

Clearly, the novel occupies a special place in Bakhtin’s thinking and is, as Bakhtin defines it, marked less by its similarities to than by its differences from the other literary forms—from, for example, drama, which Bakhtin paradoxically yet persuasively judges too monological; from poetry, which implies a Ptolemaic view of language; and from epic, which presents a static world that exists entirely in the past, complete in itself, without any future (in fact, outside of time entirely: chronologyless) and which presents the hero with only one possible destiny and the reader with only one possible attitude, reverence. Looking historically at the question of the novel’s development, Bakhtin locates its sources not in the recognized high literary forms just mentioned but instead in various low and even nonliterary forms: folklore, folk laughter, carnival, and Menippean satire. What all of these latter forms have in common (other than their appeal to common folk, that is) is their tendency to destroy that sense of “distance” (between word and world, between character and world, between reader and text/author, and the like) that the more conventional and more clearly “literary” forms tend to emphasize. In his history of the prenovel, Bakhtin pays special attention to the works of Francois Rabelais, whose love of comic inversion and preference for the material over the abstract equal Bakhtin’s. In Pantagruel (1532; English translation, 1653) and Gargantua (1534; English translation, 1653), Rabelais grotesquely separates that which has conventionally been joined and conversely brings together that which previously has been kept apart (distant). In this way Rabelais comes to exalt all that social, political, ecclesiastical, and literary authority have devalued: All that is exterior, temporal, and ordinary. The novel works in a similar fashion to abolish distance in all of its forms by quite literally bringing the distant and disparate together in precisely the same way that language does.

Bakhtin’s emphasis on the literary treatment of space and time and on the relationship between this treatment and his theory of dialogism leads him to develop his theory of the chronotope in an effort to delineate still further the development and precise nature of the novel. “Chronotope” (literally, “time-place”) refers to the temporal and spatial relationships present in literary work or in the works of a particular historical period. In the early Greek romances, for example, both time and space are handled abstractly; they exert no power over the hero, nor are they in any way affected by the actions of the hero, whose character remains equally static. In the early Greek romances, the world is presented as completely alien to man; in a later chronotope—the adventure of everyday life, typified by Satyricon (first century c.e.) and Metamorphoses (second century c.e.), the situation is modified to a degree. The world appears less alien and the central character is more open to change (as brought about through moments of crisis). Everyday life is present in but peripheral to the story and to the character’s destiny. In the last of the three major chronotopes, that of the biographical novel, change is real and the world exists in all of its physicality; the temporal sequence is no longer reversible, and spatial matters are no longer interchangeable. Meeting places—roads and inns, for example, in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; English translation, 1612-1620) or drawing rooms in the novels of Honore de Balzac— suddenly become of great importance, as do thresholds of all kinds, including the dialogic novel itself, in which it is not only characters but languages as well that meet.

As Bakhtin’s analysis of the chronotope suggests, a new critical approach is needed if the radically new form of the dialogic novel is to be adequately comprehended. Approaches which emphasize literary schools, literary conventions, or the author’s biography will not suffice. The weakness of such approaches derives in large part from the fact that Bakhtin’s dialogic novel is, as Wayne C. Booth has explained, not an object at all but instead “a tendency or possibility in literature, one that is best realized only in certain novels and is entirely lacking in others.” It represents a movement toward the inclusion of greater and greater diversity of languages, speech types, and individual voices in order that this multiplicity of voices (as well as the relationships between them) will parallel and reflect the “internal stratification” of language itself.

From such a conception of the novel, two points necessarily follow. First, the function of novelistic language is only partly—perhaps only minimally—to represent (the mimetic function that Ian Watt, Erich Auerbach, and others have identified as the sine qua non of the novel as a literary genre). According to Bakhtin, novelistic discourse is largely self-referential, aware and critical of itself as language. Second, the novel is omnivorous; it includes everything (including other genres and non-or extraliterary forms)— and everyone (author and reader not excepted). It can do so because of its immense sensitivity to all that is other, that is, to all that appears alien in other literary forms. Moreover, this omnivorousness is coupled with a high degree of irreverence, which manifests itself in the novel’s willingness to plunder and parody. Parody liberates; it frees the object from language by putting that language in figurative quotation marks. In this way it foregrounds the “double-voicedness” that characterizes novelistic discourse and that “is prefigured in language itself.” The central question for those who would like to devise a stylistics of the novel is, how is one to present an image of this double-voiced language? In Bakhtin’s case, that image is one of intersection: Languages (Bakhtin claims) do not exclude one another; rather, they intersect. The novel is therefore best approached as an unstable form, hybrid, a system of artistically arranged languages in which it is not so much the hero who is being tested as the language. The critic’s role is to discern the play of languages and voices as well as the ways in which they intersect.


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The Dialogic Imagination consists of translations of four of the six essays published in 1975, the year of Mikhail Bakhtin’s death. The publication of The Dialogic Imagination was the result of interest in Bakhtin on the part of a new generation of Russian literary scholars who sought to rescue Bakhtin from the obscurity forced on him during the Stalinist era.

To gain a proper appreciation of the essays, it is important to understand not only how they finally came to be published and what Bakhtin espoused but also what he rejected and wrote against. Chief among the ideas he rejected was monologism (of which Stalinism was the most obvious example); it was also the topic about which Bakhtin was least able to write openly. Bakhtin’s rejection of monologism extends to his rejection of any system that claimed to offer a complete, scientific explanation of language in general and literature in particular. At a time when formalism and structuralism were in favor throughout Europe and especially in the Soviet Union, Bakhtin developed a very different, deeply historical approach, one that saw language not as abstract and scientifically classifiable but as intensely social, indeed as a ceaseless struggle of opposing, intersecting forces. For Bakhtin, then, the multiple meanings of a living utterance exceed any system’s capacity for fixing, explaining, and containing them. Thus, rather than seeking unity in diversity, Bakhtin explored the diversity within language’s apparent unity by attending closely and sensitively to the “the social atmosphere of the word” and “the dialogic orientation of a word among other words.”


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The collection’s remaining essays are much longer and more complex. Written in 1937-1938 and revised in 1973, “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel” concerns “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature.” (“Chronotope” literally means “time-place.”) Bakhtin’s interest is not in the way literature reflects the world (he rejected naïve realism); instead it is with the ways in which literature organizes the world spatially and temporally, as he demonstrates by analyzing a number of representative chronotopes.

Not surprisingly, the earliest chronotope, that in a Greek romance, is also the most abstract and static. Its settings are vaguely exotic but otherwise indefinite; the adventures themselves are interchangeable and both causality and development entirely lacking. The world of the Greek romance is one in which much happens but nothing actually changes, least of all the hero, who emerges from his many adventures exactly as he began and always will be. Bakhtin then considers genres that begin to include all that the Greek romance excludes: first, the adventure novel of everyday life, with its striking mix of adventures and quotidian existence, its use of wandering as an organizing structure, and emphasis on change, albeit of a spasmodic kind such as metamorphosis, and second, ancient biography and autobiography, with their emphasis on the “exteriority of the individual,” an individual who exists either as an already existing potential or as “an organic human collective.”

Bakhtin takes notice of the realism in folklore and of the way the world of chivalric romance is subject to chance (miraculous) occurrences and the way the heroes of these romances are at once individualized and symbolic. In the encyclopedic dream visions of the late Middle Ages (Dante Alighieri’s in particular), Bakhtin emphasizes the “struggle between living historical time and the extratemporal other worldly ideal,” which is to say “the struggle between two epochs and world-views.” Especially important to Bakhtin’s theory of the novel’s development are those works in which rogues, clowns, and fools figure prominently because of the ways in which they expose conventionality (the rogue’s flouting of all that is socially acceptable, the clown’s play, and the fool’s incomprehension).

The lengthy discussion of the Rabelaisian chronotope contains the main points that Bakhtin explores more fully in his Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable i narodnaya kul’tura srednevekov’ya i Renessansa (1965; Rabelais and His World, 1968), an expanded and revised version of his 1940 doctoral dissertation. The most obvious feature of the Rabelaisian chronotope is expansiveness, but Bakhtin is more interested in its basis in folklore, its emphasis on feasts and deaths, its rhythm of destruction and construction, and the demise of the medieval metaphysic and the rise (or birth) of a less transcendent, more authentic worldview in which the individual, instead of being sealed off from the natural world, is open to it and made an integral part of it. The Rabelaisian chronotope contrasts sharply with that of the idyll, which, even though it develops a special relationship to place, is nonetheless “severely limited to only a few of life’s basic realities.” The severely circumscribed spaces that figure so prominently in the nineteenth century novels of Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, and others, on the other hand—the parlors and salons, for example—open up new possibilities. They serve as crisis points and thresholds—points of intersection for characters and speech types alike.

A Novel Theorist

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The first book by Bakhtin to appear in English translation was Rabelais and His World, a work well suited to the interests of the iconoclastic late 1960’s. The second, The Dialogic Imagination, appeared thirteen years later. Drawing on the rediscovery of Bakhtin in the Soviet Union, it heralded the emergence of Bakhtin in the West as a major literary theorist. Although there are important differences between the two books (ones that a number of Bakhtin scholars have subsequently tried to minimize in an effort to reshape Bakhtin as an essentially conservative thinker), the most significant difference has to do with the circumstances surrounding their reception, specifically, the way The Dialogic Imagination was hailed as an important contribution to the growing field of narratology and as a viable but by no means reactionary alternative to other poststructuralist theories, deconstruction in particular.

In 1984, Michael Holquist and Katerina Clark published a biography of Bakhtin and his Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo (1963; Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, 1973, 1984), an expanded version of a 1929 publication, was translated into English. The work contains Bakhtin’s fullest treatment of the overall argument of The Dialogic Imagination and many of its main points as well. From these two works, the Bakhtin who was once known for his work on carnival (in the Rabelais book) has emerged as the novel’s most important and influential theorist, both because of the stimulating albeit idiosyncratic way he has traced the novel’s history and because he has examined so scrupulously the question of “who speaks” in the novel and “under what conditions.” As Bakhtin points out in “Discourse in the Novel,” “this is what determines the word’s actual meaning. All direct meanings and direct expressions are false.”


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Additional Reading

Danow, David K. The Thought of Mikhail Bakhtin: From Word to Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. This gracefully written introduction is a clear and accessible presentation of Mikhail Bakhtin’s thought for readers encountering the philosopher for the first time.

Dentith, Simon. Bakhtinian Thought: An Introductory Reader. New York: Routledge, 1995. This anthology reprints excerpts from Bakhtin’s key works and presents well-researched critical guides to the concepts in those works.

Emerson, Caryl. The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997. An indispensible book for those who wish to explore the ongoing world of Bakhtin scholarship. It provides an in-depth overview of the issues debated by Russian Bakhtinians as well as those debated by Bakhtin scholars of the English-speaking world.

Emerson, Caryl, and Gary Saul Morson. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Poetics. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990. Though it is a little too detailed to be an accessible introduction to Bakhtin’s philosophy, this is an invaluable companion to anyone trying to read his entire body of work.

Holquist, Michael, and Katerina Clark. Mikhail Bakhtin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. This critical biography of Mikhail Bakhtin is notable in part for its assertion that selected works of Bakhtin’s associates, Pavel Medvedev and Valentin Voloshinov, were in fact the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, dictated to his friends and published under their names when he was out of favor with the Stalinist government. No definitive resolution of this issue has ever appeared.

Vice, Sue. Introducing Bakhtin. New York: Manchester University Press, 1997. Though this may not be the most definitive guide to Bakhtin’s thought available, its use of contemporary references in long discussions of Bakhtin’s concepts of heteroglossia, polyphony, dialogism, and the carnival make it helpful for those coming to his work with only a basic knowledge.

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