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.)