Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

The Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin was born in 1895 and died in 1975. Although an earlier version of the volume currently entitled Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics had been published in 1929, Bakhtin was little known either inside the Soviet Union or elsewhere until the 1960’s. Falling under the cloud of ideological suspicion during the paranoid Stalinist era, he was compelled to live in personal obscurity in a succession of provincial towns for most of his adult live. At the same time, the book that he had written on Dostoevski was totally withdrawn from circulation. His fortune, however, improved markedly during the post-Stalin period as a result of emergence of a less repressive intellectual climate within the Soviet Union. A revised and greatly expanded edition of his treatise on Dostoevski was published in 1963, and a previously unpublished book called Rabelais and His World appeared in 1965. Both of these works were translated into English and other Western European languages shortly thereafter, and Bakhtin’s preeminence as a literary scholar was soon recognized by an international body of scholars. More recently, four of his essays were published in English translation under the title The Dialogic Imagination (1981). In addition, a long-standing need has finally been fulfilled with the publication of the biographical study Mikhail Bakhtin (1984), by Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist. Issued concurrently is a newly translated version of Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. The present edition of this work should completely supplant the one previously published in 1973 by virtue of its extensive critical apparatus and its superior translation of the original text. Caryl Emerson’s efforts on both counts can only be described as definitive. In the introduction, Wayne C. Booth, for his part, seeks to clarify Bakhtin’s analysis of the role of narration in the novel by relating it to the position that he himself had formerly espoused in works such as The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). In the process of making this comparison, Booth freely concedes that he has modified his views significantly as the result of having studied Bakhtin’s arguments pertaining to the form of the novel.

The most important critical proposition to appear in Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics is the claim that Fyodor Dostoevski was the first truly “polyphonic” novelist in literary history. In essence, Bakhtin contends that the fictional characters created by Dostoevski have been endowed with autonomous voices to such an extent that the reader can no longer discern any authorial control over their utterances or actions. The genesis of original ideas is ultimately an inexplicable phenomenon, but Bakhtin’s concept of polyphony must stem in part from the cultural stimulation that he experienced when his family moved from Orel to Vilnius. He was born in Orel, a Russian city of some sixty thousand inhabitants located several hundred miles due south of Moscow, and spent the first nine years of his life in an environment of linguistic and religious homogeneity. Upon moving to Vilnius, where his father had been reassigned as a bank manager, Bakhtin was exposed to cultural pluralism for the very first time. Approximately sixty percent of the 200,000 people who lived there used Polish as their mother tongue, and more than a quarter of the inhabitants were Yiddish-speaking Jews. At the same time, the city served as the capital of the Baltic province of Lithuania, and its official language was Russian. The city was called “Vilnius” by the Lithuanians, “Wilno” by the Poles, and “Vilna” by the Russians and the Jews. None of these disparate groups had much inclination to communicate with one another and were content simply to coexist, but the five years that Bakhtin spent in Vilnius opened his eyes to the advantages of cultural polyphony in society. A subsequent move by the family to the port city of Odessa on the Black Sea only served to reinforce Bakhtin’s appreciation of the ethnic and religious diversity to which he had been exposed in Vilnius.

Bakhtin remained in Odessa for four years before deciding to join his elder brother as a student of classical philology and history at Petrograd University in 1914. Suffering from chronic osteomyelitis, he was physically unfit for military service and was therefore permitted to continue his studies after the outbreak of World War I. The severe economic hardships that followed in the wake of the October Revolution obliged Bakhtin to seek employment in the provinces. From 1918 to 1924, he earned his livelihood as a teacher in educational institutions in Nevel and Vitebsk. In addition to writing several important essays dealing with problems in aesthetics during these years, he managed to convince his landlady’s daughter in Vitebsk to marry him. Bakhtin was less fortunate in terms of personal health, however, for his osteomyelitis gradually worsened to the point where he qualified for a state pension as a handicapped person. (The inflammation of the bone marrow in his right leg eventually became so acute that he agreed to have it amputated in 1938.)

Since he no longer had to work, Bakhtin returned to Petrograd (present-day Leningrad) and devoted himself to various research projects. There, as elsewhere, he formed a circle of like-minded intellectual friends. During this period, several important studies of Freudianism, Formalism, and Marxist linguistic theory were published under the names of members of the so-called Bakhtin Circle; among these works was The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics, which was published in 1928 under the name P. M. Medvedev and appeared in English translation in 1978 with Bakhtin and Medvedev both named on the title page. The authorship of this book and other works of the Bakhtin Circle is a matter of ongoing critical debate; some scholars believe that these works were written entirely by Bakhtin, while others argue that they merely reflect his...

(The entire section is 2488 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Book World. XIV, July 8, 1984, p. 12.

Choice. XXII, December, 1984, p. 564.

Commentary. LXXVIII, November, 1984, p. 39.