Mikhail Bakhtin Bakhtin, Mikhail (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Mikhail Bakhtin 1895-1975

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms P. N. Medvedev and V. N. Voloshinov) Russian critic, essayist, and literary theorist.

The following entry presents an overview of Bakhtin's life and works. For further information on his career, see CLC, Volume 83.

The significance of the contributions that Bakhtin made to the fields of philosophy, linguistics and cultural studies, as well as aesthetics and literary theory, were not widely known in the West until his work was translated posthumously. An unsystematic thinker whose work defies categorization, Bakhtin posited that the forms and meanings of language are constantly shaped by history and culture. Among Bakhtin's most influence concepts are “heteroglossia,” the idea that culture and its narratives, no matter how monolithic they appear, are comprised of a polyphony of competing voices; “dialogism,” which holds that culture is inherently responsive and interactive, involving individuals acting and reacting at a particular point in time and space; and “the carnivalesque,” a subversive mixing of high and low cultures that undermines social hierarchies and opens the way for change and new connections. Bakhtin's theories, which celebrate the parodic and fragmentary, have provided new ways of reading both canonical and marginalized or neglected literature.

Biographical Information

The second son of a bank manager who was descended from Russian nobility, Bakhtin was born in 1895 in Orel, a town south of Moscow, and grew up in Vilnius, Lithuania and Odessa, Russia. As a young man Bakhtin was influenced by the philosophy of culture advocated by the Russian Symbolist poets. A university student during the 1917 revolution, Bakhtin graduated from St. Petersburg University in 1918. Although many academics fled Stalin's regime, Bakhtin joined a group of intellectuals in famine-plagued Nevel, three hundred miles from St Petersburg. In 1920 Bakhtin moved to Vitebsk, where he taught Russian literature and religious philosophy. Suffering from typhoid and the bone disease osteomyelitis, he was nursed by Elena Aleksandrovna Okolovich, whom he married in 1921. Bakhtin published his early works pseudonymously to avoid the censorship, exile, or execution common to intellectuals under Stalin. Problemy tvorchestva Dostoevskogo (which may be translated as “Problems of Dostoevsky's Art.”), published under his own name in 1929, was immediately suppressed. That same year Bakhtin was arrested for his membership in a Christian organization and exiled to the Russian territory Kaziakh (now Kazakhstan), where he worked as a bookkeeper and began work on Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable i narodnaia kul'tura srednevekov'ia i Renessansa (published 1965; Rabelais and His World). In 1936 Bakhtin taught for a year at the Mordovia Pedagogical Institute, but fled to avoid another Stalinist purge. Because of his bone disease, Bakhtin's leg was amputated in 1938. In 1937-38, Bakhtin wrote an analysis of the bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, which was partially destroyed during a World War II paper shortage, when Bakhtin used the prospectus, introduction, and conclusion for cigarette wrappers and smoked them. The surviving fragment is included in Estetika slovesnogo tvorchestva (1979; Speech Genres and Other Essays). After the war Bakhtin was allowed to return to the Pedagogical Institute, where he remained until his retirement in 1961. With the lifting of political oppression, Bakhtin published a substantially revised version of his study of Dostoevsky in 1963, released Rabelais and His World in 1965, and issued the six-essay collection Voprosy literatury i estetiki (partially translated as The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays) in 1972. His health continued to fail; in 1969, his remaining leg was amputated. He died of emphysema in Moscow on March 7, 1975; his last words were “I go to thee.”

Major Works

Even Bakhtin's earliest writings, such as the essays “Iskusstvo i otvetstvennost” (1919; “Art and Answerability”) and “K filosofii postupka” (published 1986; Toward a Philosophy of the Act) grapple with the themes of the dynamic relationship between art and culture and how meaning evolves from the interaction of multiple voices and viewpoints. The authorship of several of Bakhtin's early works, which were published under pseudonyms, is contested; in the first of these, Formal'nyi metod v literaturovedenii (1928; The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship), Bakhtin outlines a materialist method of literary criticism; in Marksizm i filosofiia iazyka (1929; Marxism and the Philosophy of Language) he develops a sociohistorical approach to language; Freidizm: Kriticheskii ocherk (1927; Freudianism: A Critical Sketch) is a materialist critique of psychoanalysis. In Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, the 1963 version of his study, Bakhtin argues that Dostoevsky's multivoiced, or polyphonic, fiction draws on Socrates' dialogues, in which contrasting viewpoints interact in an evolving conversation—“dialogism”—in which language and context shape one another. Rabelais and His World traces the history of the carnival as represented by François Rabelais, reading the carnival as a radical interpretation of the Christ's Passion and Resurrection. In its subversion of hierarchy and established authority through laughter, parody, and the inversion of low and high culture, the carnival has the “regenerative potential” to create new connections, according to Bakhtin. The four essays collected in The Dialogic Imagination further develop Bakhtin's theory of the dialogic. In “Formy vremeni i khronotopa v romane” (“Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel”) Bakhtin defines “heteroglossia” as the dependence of a piece of literature's language and meaning on its chronotope, or specific sociohistorical context. “Slovo v romane” (“Discourse in the Novel”) outlines Bakhtin's theory of the novel and further develops his language theory. Bakhtin's posthumous collection, Estetika slovesnogo tvorchestva (1979; partially translated as Speech Genres and Other Late Essays), contains several important essays on linguistics, including “Problema rechevykh zhanrov” (“The Problem of Speech Genres”) and “Problema teksta v lingvistike, filologii i drugikh gumanitarnykh naukakh” (“The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences”). In all his work, Bakhtin examines the ways that language creates culture and examines the part culture plays in shaping meaning—concepts with broad philosophical and linguistic implications.

Critical Reception

When Bakhtin first became known in the West in the 1960s, after decades of suppression in the Soviet Union, his work was considered a valuable contribution to the field of linguistics for its emphasis on sociohistorical context, openness, and dialogue. Although the Russian academic community generally holds Bakhtin to be the author of his pseudonymous works, the authorship of Freudianism, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship and Marxism and the Philosophy of Language has been much contested in the West, with critics such as Michael Holquist and Katerina Clark ascribing authorship to Bakhtin, while critics such as Caryl Emerson and Gary Saul Morson disagree. At a time when literary scholarship was reacting against Structuralism and New Criticism, Bakhtin was an exciting new force. Emerson, Bakhtin's translator, acknowledges that “although his writing style could not be called elegant, it swarmed with living, moving consciousness,” and Susan Stewart praises Bakhtin's “relentlessly speculative approach to language, literature, and the human universe.” While granting that perhaps “the value of Bakhtin's theories lies in their deepening of the problems to be solved,” Morson considers Bakhtin “the most remarkable modern thinker to examine time in narrative.” Although Ken Hirschkop criticizes “the confusion or overlapping between dialogue and dialogism” in Bakhtin and especially his followers, he finds that conflation makes Bakhtin's work “interesting and provocative.” Bakhtin was enormously influential in several literary movements of the 1980s and 1990s, particularly postmodern, cultural, feminist, and postcolonial studies. It is Bakhtin's “radically different point of departure about how words signify in cultural communication that has mattered the most” for African-American literary scholarship, writes Dale Peterson. Carol Adlam notes that “Bakhtin offers feminism a theory of subjectivity which allows [an] autonomy” which is “always in a process of negotiation through an aesthetic cognition of the other's inner and outer specificity.” Despite the ways in which Western critics have simplified and sometimes misused Bakhtin's concepts, Aileen Kelly stresses, “Bakhtin's aesthetic approach to life was no hazy, all-embracing benevolence: it demanded an attention to the ‘humble prose of living’ (Bakhtin's term) that was far more exacting and serious than those who relied on ready-made rules to guide their actions.”

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Freidizm: Kriticheskii ocherk [as V. N. Voloshinov; Freudianism: A Critical Sketch] (criticism) 1927

Formal'nyi metod v literaturovedenii: Kriticheskoe vvedenie v sociologicheskuju poètiku [as P. N. Medvedev; The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics] (criticism) 1928

Marksizm i filosofiia iazyka: Osnovnye problemy sociologicheskogo metoda v nauke o jazyke [as V. N. Voloshinov; Marxism and the Philosophy of Language] (criticism) 1929

*Problemy tvorchestva Dostoevskogo (criticism) 1929

O granitsakh poètiki i lingvistiki [as Voloshinov] (essay) 1930

Soiuz rabochikh i krestian v gody vosstanovleniia narodnogo khoziaistva (essay) 1961

*Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo [Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics] (criticism) 1963

Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable i narodnaia kul'tura srednevekov'ia i Renessansa [Rabelais and His World] (criticism) 1965

Voprosy literatury i estetiki [partially translated as The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays] (criticism) 1972

Problemy poetiki i istorii literatury (criticism) 1973

Estetika slovesnogo tvorchestva [partially translated as Speech Genres and Other Late Essays] (prose) 1979

Bakhtin School Papers [edited by Ann Shukman] (essays) 1984

“K filosofii postupka” [Toward a Philosophy of the Act] (essays) 1986

Literaturno-kriticheskie stat'i (prose) 1986

Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M. M. Bakhtin [translated by Vadim Liapunov, edited by Holquist and Liapunov] (essays) 1990

Bakhtiniskii sbornik. 3 vols. [edited by K. G. Isupov and others] (essays) 1990-91

The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev and Voloshinov [edited by Pam Morris] (essays) 1994

Raboty 1920-kh godov, Dlia nauchnykh bibliotek (essays) 1994

Sobranie sochinenii v semi tomakh (essays) 1996

Sobranie sochinenii T. 5. Raboty 1940-kh nachala 1960-kh godov [edited by S. G. Bocharev and L. A. Gogotishvili] (essays) 1996

*The title of the 1929 version of this work means “Problems of Dostoevsky's Art.” The 1963 version is a significant revision and expansion of the earlier work and is the version that has widely circulated in the West.

Tzvetan Todorov (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Todorov, Tzvetan. “History of Literature.” In Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle, translated by Wlad Godzich, pp. 75-93. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in French in 1981, Todorov discusses Bakhtin's theory of literary history as found in several of his works. The critic summarizes Bakhtin's theories of genre and discusses Bakhtin's concept of the “dialogic” in narrative and history—the plurality of competing languages, discourses, and voices within a single literary or historical work.]


An initial hypothesis concerning the history of...

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Ken Hirschkop (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hirschkop, Ken. “Is Dialogism for Real?” Social Text 30 (1992): 102-13.

[In the following essay, Hirschkop examines the conflation of dialogue and dialogism in Bakhtin's work and in the academic discourse that has subsequently developed around it.]

Is dialogism for real? In one sense, absolutely. How could one doubt it when discussion of this concept and of its most well known theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, has given rise to such a torrent of articles, books, conferences and commentary? It's for real at least in the sense that, say, the 1986 Mets or rap turned out to be “for real,” its phenomenal success as a theoretical concept indicating it was an idea...

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Gary Saul Morson (essay date autumn 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Morson, Gary Saul. “Strange Synchronies and Surplus Possibilities: Bakhtin on Time.” Slavic Review 52, no. 3 (autumn, 1993): 477-493.

[In the following essay, Morson discusses Bakhtin's fascination with indeterminism and his concept of “open time” in narrative.]

We live forward, but we understand backward.


Bakhtin must surely be regarded as the most remarkable modern thinker to examine time in narrative.1 For him, the problem was no mere exercise in literary theory. Rather, it was a way to examine ultimate questions—or in the Russian phrase,...

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Dale E. Peterson (essay date December 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Peterson, Dale E. “Response and Call: The African American Dialogue with Bakhtin.” American Literature 65, no. 4 (December 1993): 761-775.

[In the following essay, Peterson draws parallels between Bakhtin's theory of dialogism and Henry Louis Gates's work on the “double-voicedness” of African-American literature.]

Although it has taken twenty years to achieve, an exotic and somewhat rough-hewn Soviet import is now in great demand on the volatile commodities and exchange market that constitutes contemporary critical discourse. Yet even as Slavic scholars have dared announce the arrival in the West of “the age of Bakhtin,” they have, with...

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Carol Adlam (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Adlam, Carol. “Ethics of Difference: Bakhtin's Early Writings and Feminist Theories.” In Face to Face: Bakhtin in Russia and the West, edited by Carol Adlam, et al., pp. 142-59. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Adlam discusses the ways in which Bakhtin's concepts of carnival, double-voicing, heteroglossia, and polyphony have been employed in feminist literary criticism, arguing that Bakhtin was a precursor of feminist theories of language.]


The impact of Bakhtin on twentieth-century thought shows no signs of abating in his centenary year. The abundance of both exegetic and applied...

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Anthony Wall (essay date summer-fall 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wall, Anthony. “A Broken Thinker.” South Atlantic Quarterly 97, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall, 1998): 669-98.

[In the following essay, Wall argues that Bakhtin is a fundamentally fragmentary thinker and that those who attempt to reconstruct his lost thought from his fragments both misread Bakhtin and misunderstand the process of cultural memory.]

Or again, what harm would it have done us to have remained uncreated?

—Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe

Bakhtin is a broken thinker and the pieces of his thought are strewn in virtually every direction. It is ironic that as the early...

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Peter Hitchcock (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hitchcock, Peter. “The Grotesque of the Body Electric.” In Bakhtin and the Human Sciences: No Last Words, edited by Michael Mayerfeld Bell and Michael Gardiner, pp. 78-94. London: SAGE Publications, 1998.

[In the following essay, Hitchcock uses the biographical details of Bakhtin's physical deterioration and the amputation of his legs in an exploration of the possibilities of the grotesque inherent in the carnival.]

We must share each other's excess in order to overcome our mutual lack.

—Michael Holquist

I begin with Bakhtin's leg; or rather, its manifest absence. I will begin by...

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Michael Bernard-Donals (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bernard-Donals, Michael. “Knowing the Subaltern: Bakhtin, Carnival, and the Other Voice of the Human Sciences.” In Bakhtin and the Human Sciences: No Last Words, edited by Michael Mayerfeld Bell and Michael Gardiner, pp. 112-27. London: SAGE Publications, 1998.

[In the following essay, Bernard-Donals draws upon Bakhtin's notions of carnival and subversion to explore “the impossible contradiction of writing what cannot be written” in postcolonial literature by historically marginalized and disempowered voices, and demonstrates the influence of Bakhtin's work on postcolonial theorists such as Gayatri Spivak and Kwame Anthony Appiah.]


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Aileen M. Kelly (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kelly, Aileen M. “The Flesh of Time: Mikhail Bakhtin.” In Views from the Other Shore: Essays on Herzen, Chekhov, and Bakhtin, pp. 192-216. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Kelly compares Bakhtin's approach toward utopian systems and systemic thinking to that of his compatriot and predecessor Alexander Herzen, considered the father of Russian socialism.]

In June 1995 an international conference was held in Moscow to celebrate the centenary of one of Russia's best-known intellectuals—the philosopher and critic Mikhail Bakhtin. Participants from twenty countries came together to discuss the legacy of a thinker who had...

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Caryl Emerson (lecture date 30 October 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Emerson, Caryl. “Bakhtin After the Boom: Pro and Contra.” Journal of European Studies 32, no. 124 (March 2002): 3-26.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture on 30 October 2001, Emerson reviews controversies in Bahktinian scholarship, provides insight into Bakhtin as a teacher and reader of texts, and speculates on possible future directions for Bakhtin studies.]

My topic today is the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) and the contours of his posthumous life. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed an explosion of interest in Bakhtin, a thinker who hitherto had been almost wholly unknown outside his native land. Indeed, in Soviet...

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Michael Holquist (essay date 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Holquist, Michael. “Why Is God's Name a Pun?: Bakhtin's Theory of the Novel in the Light of Theophilology.” In The Novelness of Bakhtin: Perspectives and Possibilities, edited by Jørgen Bruhn and Jan Lundquist, pp. 53-69. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Holquist explores the relationship between the sacred and the profane in Bakhtin's theory of the novel.]

“The life which that has no knowledge of the air it breathes is a naive life.”

M. M. Bakhtin

For all his opposition to monologue and the autarchic word, Bakhtin himself was not above making...

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Deborah J. Haynes (essay date 2002)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Haynes, Deborah J. “Bakhtin and the Visual Arts.” In A Companion to Art Theory, edited by Paul Smith and Carolyn Wilde, pp. 292-302. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

[In the following essay, Haynes discusses how Bakhtin's aesthetic theory might contribute to the study of the visual arts by making the viewing of and study of art more answerable and interactive.]

Since Bakhtin's writings consistently began to appear in print in the 1960s, his name has often been associated with concepts such as “carnival,” developed in Rabelais and His World, and “dialogue” or “dialogism,” developed in The Dialogical Imagination.1 But...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Averintsev, Sergei. “Mikhail Baktin: Retrospective and Perspective.” Soviet Literature 8 (1988): 124-28.

A brief retrospective on Bakhtin's contributions to literary theory, written twelve years after his death.

Barsky, Robert F. “Bakhtin as Anarchist? Language, Law, and Creative Impulses in the Work of Mikhail Bakhtin and Rudolph Rocker.” South Atlantic Quarterly 97, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 1998): 623-42.

Considers the problems of reading Bakhtin as an anarchist, comparing him to Rudolph Rocker and Mikhail Bakunin.

Bell, Michael Mayerfeld and Michael Gardiner, eds. Bakhtin...

(The entire section is 1800 words.)