(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mikhail Bakhtin 1895–1975

(Full name Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin; also transliterated as Bachtin and Baxtin; also published under the names P. N. Medvedev and V. N. Voloshinov) Russian critic, essayist, and literary theorist.

The following entry provides an overview of Bakhtin's career. See also Mikhail Bakhtin Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism.

One of the most significant literary theorists of the twentieth century, Bakhtin is noted for his studies of the relationship between language, popular culture, and the history of the novel as a literary genre. Claiming that language is an evolving entity whose form and meaning are constantly molded by history and culture, Bakhtin rejected rigid systems of thought that could not account for what he termed "heteroglossia": the polyphony of languages and perspectives that make up modern society and are reflected in its art—most strikingly for Bakhtin in the novel.

Biographical Information

Born in Orel, south of Moscow, Russia, Bakhtin grew up in Vilnius, Lithuania and the Russian port city Odessa. He attended Novorossia University and later transferred to Petersburg University, from which he graduated in 1918. Bakhtin began writing in Petrograd during the postrevolutionary regime of Joseph Stalin, publishing his early works, Formal'nyj metod v literaturovedenii (1928; The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship), Freidizm: Kriticheskii ocherk (1927; Freudianism: A Marxist Critique), and Marksizm i filosofija jazyka (1929; Marxism and the Philosophy of Language) under the names of his students Pavel Nikolaevich Medvedev and V. N. Voloshinov to avoid the censorship and possible exile or execution common to intellectuals during the Stalinist administration. Despite his precautions, Bakhtin fell into disfavor with the government and was arrested in 1929. Due to his poor health, he was exiled to the Russian territory Kazakh rather than sent to prison camp. Before leaving, however, Bakhtin published Problemy tvorčestva Dostoevskogo (1929; Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics) under his own name; the book was immediately suppressed by the government. Bakhtin lived in Kazakh from 1929 to 1936, preparing his dissertation on the works of François Rabelais. Completed in 1940, Tvorčestva Fransua Rable i narodnaja kul'tura srednevekov'ja i Renessansa (Rabelais and His World) was suppressed by officials until 1965. Bakhtin taught at the Mordovian Teachers' Training College until the beginning of World War II, when he took time off to work on another manuscript. He returned to the college after the war, where he remained until his retirement in 1961. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Bakhtin's reputation outside the Soviet Union grew with the publication of Vo-prosy literatury i estetiki (The Dialogic Imagination) in 1973, and with the increasing academic interest in deconstructionist and structuralist theory. He died in Moscow in 1975.

Major Works

Bakhtin is credited with introducing several seminal concepts to the field of literary theory. Contemporary critics comment that in the earliest works Bakhtin's ideas proved to be precursors to much modern structuralist and poststructuralist theory. In The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, Bakhtin criticized Russian Formalism's essentialist approach to literature, positing instead a sociological materialist method of study. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language outlines Bakhtin's sociohistorical theory of language, criticizing Ferdinand de Saussure's biophysiological linguistics. Freudianism: A Marxist Critique evaluates Freudian psychoanalysis from a Marxist materialist perspective. In his later works, Bakhtin expanded upon his sociohistorical focus—which he would eventually term "heteroglossia"—applying it to literature as well as linguistics. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics presents the ideas of polyphony and dialogism. Contending that Dostoevsky created a new kind of novel by giving each of his characters an individual voice unmarked by his own beliefs and opinions, Bakhtin believed that Dostoevsky's work proved that authors could escape their own reality in order to create another. The various voices of the novel together form what Bakhtin termed "dialogism"—the democratic and polyphonic intermingling of "high" and "low" forms of language and culture that reflects the heteroglot society at large. The concept of dialogism appears in most of Bakhtin's works and forms the basis of many of his literary and cultural theories. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin examined medieval and Renaissance European culture through an analysis of François Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel. Using the concepts of carnival and the culture of laughter—both of which helped the underclasses in medieval and Renaissance times to parody official languages and established notions of high culture, as in, according to Bakhtin, Rabelais's free display of the human body—Bakhtin asserted that the carnival liberated and empowered those in the lower strata of society. The collection of essays entitled The Dialogic Imagination outlines Bakhtin's theory of the novel and includes much of his language theory, particularly in the essay "Discourse in the Novel."

Critical Reception

After decades of suppression in Soviet Russia, Bakhtinian theory emerged in the West in the early 1960s as a major force in modern linguistics. Characterized by an aversion to the more systematized theories of such thinkers as Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson, Bakhtin's concepts favored contextual openness and dialogue. Tzvetan Todorov and other critics have perceived this as evidence of an inherent lack of structure and therefore a major flaw in Bakhtin's work. Other critics such as Michael Holquist contend that Bakhtin's approach, while less structured than others, is not without order and reflects his conception of the novel: Bakhtin's "concept of language stands in relation to others … much as the novel stands in opposition to other, more formalized genres. That is, the novel—as Bakhtin more than anyone has taught us to see—does not lack its organizing principles, but they are of a different order from those regulating sonnets or odes." Controversy has also surrounded Bakhtin's theory of the carnival. Many scholars believe that the carnival primarily served not as a form of liberation and empowerment for the lower classes—as Bakhtin asserted—but as a practical method supported by the upper classes for defusing the frustrations of the underclasses, thus squelching real revolutionary fervor. Nonetheless, many critics have praised Bakhtin's attempts to "democratize" literature and theory, maintaining that his depiction of literature as a product and reflection of popular rather than high or elite culture is emblematic of humanistic social ideals. Stanley Aronowitz has written: "Bakhtin is the social theorist of difference, who, unlike Derrida and Foucault, gives top billing to historical agents and agency. For Bakhtin, there are no privileged protagonists, no final solutions, only a panoply of divergent voices which somehow make their own music."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Freidizm: Kriticheskii ocherk [as V. N. Voloshinov] (criticism) 1927
[Freudianism: A Marxist Critique 1976]
Formal'nyj metod v literaturovedenii [as P. N. Medvedev] (criticism) 1928
[The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship 1978]
Marksizm i filosofija jazyka [as V. N. Voloshinov] (criticism) 1929
[Marxism and the Philosophy of Language 1973]
Problemy tvorčestva Dostoevskogo (criticism) 1929
[Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, 1973]
Tvorčestva Fransua Rable i narodnaja kul'tura srednevekov'ja i Renessansa (criticism) 1965
[Rabelais and His World,...

(The entire section is 74 words.)

Ann Shukman (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In the following excerpt, Shukman surveys Bakhtin's major works and disputes the assumption that works published under the names Medvedev and Voloshinov are solely attributable to Bakhtin, due primarily to what she considers drastic stylistic differences between the three scholars.]

Outstanding among scholars who survived the decimation of the Leningrad intelligentsia in the late twenties and thirties is the literary historian, theorist and philosopher, Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin. By the time of his death at the age of eighty in 1975, Bakhtin's reputation as an original thinker in the semiotic-structuralist manner was rapidly growing, both abroad and in his native land. Eulogies from, among...

(The entire section is 4730 words.)

Tzvetan Todorov (essay date 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Bulgarian-born French critic, Todorov is a significant scholar in structuralist and post-structuralist theory. His writings include Littérature et signification (1967); Introduction à la littérature fantastique (1970; translated and published as The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 1973); and Théories du symbole (1977). In the essay below, Todorov explores Bakhtin's theory of the utterance as rooted in social context.]

Bakhtin formulates his theory of the utterance on two occasions: once during the late twenties, in the texts signed by Medvedev and especially by Voloshinov; and in several works published at the end of the fifties, some...

(The entire section is 4721 words.)

Anthony Wall (essay date Fall 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In the following essay, Wall discusses the importance of fictional characters to Bakhtin's theory of the novel, examining the notion that "heteroglossia," or "other-voicedness," is the defining characteristic of the genre.]

The present essay explores the nature of characters and narrators in the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin and his circle. Our project is a hazardous one because Bakhtin's texts do not provide us with a systematic discussion of this problem. As a consequence, it must be understood that the passages we have selected for discussion are taken out of a variety of contexts in his essays. As well, they come from all of his various intellectual periods. We have tried to systematize the...

(The entire section is 5062 words.)

Robert Anchor (essay date Spring 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Anchor is an American historian and translator. In the following essay, he examines Bakhtin's interpretation of the carnival as a liberating experience in popular culture and shows the important role it plays in his theory of the novel.]

Mikhail M. Bakhtin is best known for his visionary conception of carnival—the carnivalesque, "carnival consciousness," "the culture of laughter"—as a model for the regeneration of time and the world and the emancipation of the human spirit: "This carnival spirit offers the chance to have a new outlook on the world, to realize the relative nature of all that exists, and to enter a completely new order of things" [Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World,...

(The entire section is 8138 words.)

Susan Stewart (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In the essay below, which was originally published in 1983, Stewart analyzes how Bakhtin's linguistic theories reject the abstract conception of language in favor of a purely social, "practical" one.]

During the period of the New Economic Policy, as Lenin sought, rather abashedly, to approach communism via a new form of "state capitalism," and as the concrete mode of peasant existence was being transformed into the abstractions of industrial labor, the contradictions between synchrony and diachrony, between "sincerity" and "irony," between insistences simultaneously upon meaning and "multivocality" were in full flower. The work of the Bakhtin school may be located within this milieu of...

(The entire section is 7442 words.)

Richard Jackson (essay date Summer 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In the essay below, Jackson presents an overview of Bakhtin's texts and themes.]

Two citations from Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics by Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975) are enough to suggest the difficulty involved in coming to any terms (in that phrase's sense of a unifying label and a temporal enclosure) with this increasingly important Russian writer. The first citation comes from his third chapter, "The Idea in Dostoevsky": "It is quite possible to imagine and postulate a unified truth that requires a plurality of consciousness, one that is, so to speak, by its very nature full of event potential and is born at a point of contact among various consciousnesses." Later, in...

(The entire section is 2957 words.)

Caryl Emerson (essay date Winter 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[An American critic and educator, Emerson is the translator and editor, with Michael Holquist, of The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin (1981) and Speech Genres and Other Late Essays by Bakhtin (1987), as well as the author, with Gary Saul Morson, of Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics (1990). Here, she explores problems in the application of Bakhtin's theories.]

Baxtin studies have come of age. For evidence of this one should look not at the exploding number of references, nor at the extraordinary seepage of his name into unlikely disciplines, nor even at the frequency of old themes now being newly reworked under the labels "dialogic" or...

(The entire section is 9062 words.)

Paul de Man (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Belgian-born American literary theorist, critic, and educator, de Man was a pioneer in establishing the theoretical movement known as "deconstruction," which he promoted in such works as Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (1971), Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (1979), and The Resistance to Theory (1986). The discovery in 1987 of anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi articles written by de Man for a collaborationist newspaper in Belgium in the early 1940s complicated the controversy already surrounding deconstruction, with some critics noting what they considered the biased, political nature of the movement. In the essay...

(The entire section is 4177 words.)

Michael Holquist (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Holquist is an American critic, educator, and translator whose works include Dostoevsky and the Novel: The Wages of Biography (1977) and the biography Mikhail Bakhtin (1985, with Katerina Clark). In the following excerpt from his book Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World, Holquist traces fundamental issues in Bakhtin's theories of language and society.]

Mikhail Bakhtin made important contributions to several different areas of thought, each with its own history, its own language, and its own shared assumptions. As a result, literary scholars have perceived him as doing one sort of thing, linguists another, and anthropologists yet another. We lack a comprehensive term that is...

(The entire section is 10741 words.)

Mikita Hoy (essay date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In the following essay, Hoy applies Bakhtin's model of textual dialogism and the carnivalesque to an analysis of contemporary popular culture.]

Mikhail Bakhtin is acknowledged in increasingly wide circles as a sensitive observer of popular culture in its socio-historical context. His acute study of the folkloric rituals of carnival—from the phallophors of epic Saturnalia, whose role was to joke and cavort obscenely, to the rogue comedians at turn-of-the-century country fairs—uncovers a vast and fertile dialogue of heteroglossia. Not only at the carnival but pervading all levels of language, Bakhtin identifies infinitely shifting heteroglottal strata made up of loosely bound generic...

(The entire section is 6697 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Clark, Katerina, and Holquist, Michael. Mikhail Bakhtin.

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984, 398 p.

Discusses Bakhtin's life and works.


Bauer, Dale M., and McKinstry, Susan Jaret, eds. Feminism, Bakhtin, and the Dialogic. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991, 259 p.

Collection of essays that apply Bakhtinian theory to feminist literary analysis.

Booth, Wayne C. "Freedom of Interpretation: Bakhtin and the Challenge of Feminist Criticism." Critical...

(The entire section is 544 words.)