The Dialogic Imagination

by Mikhail Bakhtin

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How does Bakhtin identify the novel as a social phenomenon?

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Bakhtin defines the novel against the epic. If the epic depicts one unifying ruling class worldview, the novel is notable for including a swelter of voices, a mix of social classes, dialects (which he calls heteroglossia), and points of view placed in conversation and conflict. It is this layering of different perspectives that gives the novel its vitality. He calls this melding of different voices "polyphony," a terms the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote at about the same time, also uses to describe the infinitely multi-layered possibilities of life: we don't all have to be merely one thing. Society is a relationship, and this relationship is what animates the novel. We are all defined by relationship: to others, ourselves, and the world. Unlike an engineering handbook, which tells us what to think, a novel invites us to engage critically in examining our universe.

Charles Dickens, as Bakhtin notes, is one example of novelist who incorporates a multitude of different classes, voices, and dialects into his books, creating humor but also calling into question the idea that there is only one way of understanding life.

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