Form and Content

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...

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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.”


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...

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A Novel Theorist

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.”


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....

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