Mikhail Bakhtin

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How does Bakhtin distinguish the novel from the epic?

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Bakhtin distinguishes the novel from the epic by arguing that the novel is a developing genre whereas the epic is completed and antiquated. To some extent, this is because the novel is still a relatively new genre of writing.

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In his essay “Epic and Novel: Towards a Methodology for the Study of the Novel,” Bakhtin argues that the novel is a genre of writing still very much in the process of development. As such, it is uncompleted, unlike the epic, which as well as being completed is also antiquated.

To a considerable extent, Bakhtin attributes the novel's continuing development as a genre to its relatively young age. As he points out, the novel is the only major genre younger than writing and the book. Among other things, this means that it is receptive to new ways of reading which simply do not apply to the epic.

For the most part, the novel is based upon, and seeks to illustrate, subjective experience. The epic, by contrast, is inextricably linked to a specific community of individuals joined together by a common culture and a shared mythology. It is an intrinsic part of what Bakhtin calls “the absolute past” in which memory, rather than knowledge, provides the impetus for creativity.

With the novel, it is different: personal experience and knowledge are all important. In combination, they contribute to a vision of contemporary life as being in a state of becoming, a fluid state which, of its very nature, cannot be completed. The epic, however, creates a world that is stable, complete, and unchanging.

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