Bakhtin, Mikhail

Assigned: Bakhtin, Mikhail M. From Discourse in the Novel, “Modern Stylistics & the Novel” (999-1030). Also read the editors’ introduction (997-99).

From Discourse in the Novel (1934-35)


1. On 999-1000 (“The principal idea of this essay…”), Mikhail Bakhtin suggests that “[f]orm and content in discourse are one…” (999). In order to understand that basic point, what else, in his view, does a critic or reader need to comprehend? What misunderstanding of genre itself has the “separation of style and language from the question of genre” (1000) brought with it in literary studies, and how does Bakhtin characterize the kind of criticism that flows from such misunderstanding?

Modern Stylistics & the Novel

2. On 1000-01 (“Before the twentieth century…”), Bakhtin traces the historical development of interest in the critical study of novelistic fiction. What does he say happened around the end of the nineteenth century regarding critical attention to the novel? All the same, what still did not happen? (1000) What change in emphasis took place, according to Bakhtin, during the 1920s—what did critics of the novel begin to do that they had not done before, and how did these attempts expose the inadequacy of conventional “stylistics” (a variety of literary criticism) in connection to novelistic prose? (1001)

3. On 1001-02 (“The novel as a whole…”), Bakhtin begins by declaring that “The novel […] is a phenomenon multiform in style and variform in speech and voice” (1001). What five “compositional-stylistic unities” (1001) does he list by way of dividing up the total effect of novelistic prose? In relation to these five features, what does Bakhtin go on to suggest comprises the “stylistic uniqueness of the novel” (1002)? In other words, how do the various “styles” within a novel go towards a sense of unity for the entire production?

4. On 1002-03 (“The novel can be defined as…”), what definition of the novel does Bakhtin offer? In what sense does this definition encompass the social aspect of the genre? Since this is the first time in our selection that Bakhtin uses his key term heteroglossia (in Russian, raznoreĉie, разноречие; approximately, “the quality of having diverse speech”), what is its apparent meaning in the context of his comments about style in the novel? (1002) According to Bakhtin, how does traditional stylistics fail to do justice to the heteroglossic nature and unity of the novel? (1002 bottom-1003)

5. On 1003-04 (“We notice two such types…”), Bakhtin deals with the first of two types of inappropriate substitutions for the proper object of study that he says traditional stylistics mistakenly counsels. First of all, what is Bakhtin’s very brief definition of both substitution types? (1003) Then, what detailed explanation does he provide of the first type and of the troublesome consequences it entails for those trying to understand what makes the novel a valuable genre? Ultimately, according to Bakhtin, why is it “doubly imprecise” (1004) for a critic to engage in “the substitution of the individualized language of the novelist […] for the style of the novel itself…” (1004)? What does a critic who does this miss?

6. On 1004-05 (“The second type of substitution…”), Bakhtin deals with the second of two types of inappropriate substitutions for the proper object of study that he says traditional stylistics mistakenly counsels. What constitutes this second kind of erroneous substitution, and what are its consequences for the critical study of the novel? (1004-05) What “dilemma” do those who practice “stylistics and the philosophy of discourse” (1005) face, according to Bakhtin? What mindset tends to prevent even the recognition of this dilemma, let alone encourage the finding of a solution? (1005)

7. On 1005-07 (“However, there is another solution…”), Bakhtin explores the value of studying the novel in the light of its rhetorical properties, as predecessor critics Gustav Shpet and Viktor Vinogradov did. (1005-06) Although Bakhtin ultimately disagrees with Shpet’s banishment of the novel from “the realm of poetry,” what use does he nonetheless find in the elder critic’s insistence on the novel as “a rhetorical formation…” (1006)? In Bakhtin’s view, what is the connection between rhetoric and novelistic writing? (1006-07)

8. On 1007-08 (“The novel is an artistic genre…”), Bakhtin addresses how reflection on novelistic prose exposes the limitations of the linguistic theories that have long been used to explore such prose. In particular, what relation do they posit between a speaker and the supposedly “unitary” (1007) linguistic system within which that speaker functions, and why is that relation problematical? How does Bakhtin describe what he calls the centripetal power of “unitary language” (1008 top; see also 1007 bottom), and what relationship does he posit between this centripetal power of unitary language and the centrifugal power of heteroglossic speech in the novel? (1008) Overall, how is language, for Bakhtin, a dynamic social phenomenon rather than a fixed, abstract grammatical system—that is, something easily reducible to barren “rules”?

9. On 1008-09 (“Aristotelian poetics, the poetics…”), what are some of the great European forces, according to Bakhtin, that “determined the content and power of the category of ‘unitary language’ in linguistic stylistic thought” (1008) and which therefore influenced the development of various “poetic” or literary genres? At the same time, how does Bakhtin describe the centrifugal forces at work in language, forces that cut against its centripetal or unifying powers? (1009) How is the individual utterance situated in relation to the centripetal and centrifugal forces of language?

10. On 1009-11 (“The authentic environment of an…”), how does Bakhtin describe “[t]he authentic environment of an utterance” (1009)? In what ways, according to him, have the common people’s “heteroglossic” utterances worked against the centralizing tendencies in European languages that he calls the “centripetal forces of verbal-ideological life…” (1009)? What accounts for the fact that “[l]inguistics, stylistics and the philosophy of language” (1010) have all found it necessary to ignore the “dialogized heteroglossia” (1010) that Bakhtin has just described in reference to common life in Europe? How, that is, have all these varieties of criticism served “the great centralizing tendencies of European verbal-ideological life…” (1010 bottom)? What kind of investigation does Bakhtin suggest will be necessary going forwards? (1011)

Discourse in Poetry and Discourse in the Novel

11. On 1011-13 (“For the philosophy of language…”), Bakhtin addresses the dialogical, social, complex nature of language itself as the basis of novelistic discourse, writing, “no living word relates to its object in a singular way…” (1012). How does he draw out this initial expression—what inevitably comes between a single word or an utterance and its “object” or referent, and between “the word and the speaking subject” (1012) as well? How, in essence, does Bakhtin characterize the anything-but-empty environment within which utterances signify or mean? How does his metaphor of “a ray of light” and its consequent “dispersion” (1013) capture “the social atmosphere of the word” in a novel and, presumably, in creative discourse of any kind?

12. On 1013-14 (“Such is the image in artistic prose…”), how does Bakhtin differentiate the manner in which poetic discourse, i.e., “the poetic image narrowly conceived” (1013), represents or gestures towards its “object” (i.e., that which is to be represented) and the way in which the novelist (the “writer of artistic prose”) relates his or her words to the object to be imaged or represented? In what sense, according to Bakhtin, is the latter discourse more oriented towards the “heteroglossic” and “dialogic” (1014) qualities of language? Why would only Adam (see Genesis 2:20 and Milton’s Paradise Lost 8.338-55), be free from the indirections and complexities of language, especially as it tries to relate to objects in the world, which themselves are always already affected by language? (1014)

13. On 1015-17 (“But this does not exhaust the…”), Bakhtin explores how, in “living conversation,” the word or utterance is “directed toward an answer” (1015) and towards the active listener who is ever-ready to provide it. He points out that rhetorical analysis assumes something of the sort, but how does it fall short of the dynamic, dialogic understanding of the orientation of an utterance towards its embodied hearer? How does Bakhtin describe this latter active or “dialogic” response on the part of the hearer, and how is the performance and attitude of the speaker (or writer) transformed by awareness of this expected response? (1016)

14. On 1017-18 (“Although they differ in their…”), Bakhtin reflects upon Tolstoy’s distinctive prose style. He writes that discourse in the works of Tolstoy is “characterized by a sharp internal dialogism” and describes this quality as a “propagandizing impulse” (1017) not unlike what one might find in texts by the eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Since this quality of “dialogism” is central to Bakhtin’s theory of the novel, how do you interpret its meaning with reference to Tolstoy? Why does this major author, according to Bakhtin, sometimes require “special historical or literary commentary…” (1017)? In a broader context relating to discourse in everyday life, how does Bakhtin describe the phenomenon of “internal dialogization,” and more particularly, why is that phenomenon richest and most complex in novelistic fiction? (1018)

15. On 1018-21 (“In genres that are poetic in …”), Bakhtin considers the limitations of “poetic style” (1018) or discourse. By contrast with novelistic prose, what main limitation does he keep coming back to in this section? In what way is any type of poetic discourse essentially vying for self-sufficiency rather than truly opening up to dialogism? (1019-20) In Bakhtin’s view, how is the fantasy of a truly “poetic language” on the part of Symbolists and other theorists of poetics symptomatic of this tendency of poetry to remain non-dialogical? (1020-21)

16. On 1021-23 (“Language—like the living concrete…”), Bakhtin begins a discussion of “stratification” within language with the declaration, “Language […] is never unitary” (1021). Stratification is, of course, the engine of what he calls heteroglossia, the operation of many different kinds of language within what we take to be “an abstractly unitary national language” (1021) or a relatively contained and finite linguistic structure. What kinds of linguistic levels, or strata, then, does Bakhtin identify and briefly explore on the pages specified? In particular, how does he describe the “professional jargons” (1022), literary language, and group- or class-saturated language marked by “social stratification” (1022)? What additional languages or strata of language does he mention?

17. On 1023-24 (“Thus at any given moment of…”), Bakhtin initially declares that “at any given moment in its historical existence, language is heteroglot from top to bottom…” (1023). Such is the complexity of his concept of language as full of competing strata, he admits, that a reader might suppose “the very word ‘language’ loses all meaning…” (1023). However, according to Bakhtin, in what sense does the novel, or “the creative consciousness of people who write novels” (1023), provide a common or “unitary plane” where all these different varieties of language can meet? Why is the “referential and expressive” or “intentional” (1024) dimension so important to Bakhtin with regard to novelistic language? If we do not attend to that dimension, what do we render ourselves incapable of appreciating about the social significance of language? (1024)

18. On 1024-25 (“As a result of the work…”), Bakhtin offers perhaps his strongest evocation of the competitive nature of language as he conceives of it, writing that “there are no ‘neutral’ words and forms…” (1024). How does he describe the fraught relationship between the “individual consciousness” (1025) and the language by means of which that consciousness is expressed and interacts with the consciousness of others? In what sense is it true to say that our language never simply belongs to us, even though we may believe strongly that it does? (1025)

19. On 1025-27 (“We have so far proceeded on…”), Bakhtin addresses “literary language” in terms of its embrace of dialect-based speech. What happens to dialects when they “enter literature and are appropriated to literary language…” (1025)? How does a dialect such as rarefied “Church Slavonic” or everyday “low” conversational speaking open itself to change and at the same time transform literary language itself? (1025) According to Bakhtin, how does a nation’s “literary language” (1025) relate to the broader goings-on of language, of “heteroglossia” (1026 top), at the national and pan-European levels? In what does “[t]he unity of a literary language” (1026 top) consist? Finally, how does Bakhtin enlist the consciousness of “an illiterate peasant” (1026) to illustrate the sense that even uneducated people must negotiate their way through a variety of competing, contradictory “languages” within the same linguistic system, such as Russian? (1027)

20. On 1027-28 (“Of course the actively literary…”), Bakhtin returns to a statement of what he considers the tendencies of poetic discourse as opposed to the language one finds in novels. How does he describe the attitude of poets towards the poems that they create and, more particularly, towards the language that constitutes those poems? In order to achieve the degree of “hegemony” and “unity” (1027) that Bakhtin says poets find necessary, what must they do to the words they include in their poetry? In his view, how do the strong presence of metaphor and the imperative of rhythm in poetry further dictate the “unitary” quality of that genre? (1028)

21. On 1028-30 (“This is how the poet proceeds…”), Bakhtin offers a summation of the novel-writer’s way of both inviting and skillfully deploying the various types and levels of language that make their way into such a sustained work of fiction. He argues that “[t]he prose writer as a novelist does not strip away the intentions of others from the heteroglot language of his works…” (1029). What, then, does the novelist do with these “intentions,” and more broadly with the words and perspectives of other human beings? In what sense, according to Bakhtin, does a culture’s development of the novel-genre reflect a more advanced state of the dialogical qualities of language beyond the arts? How is the novel, in Bakhtin’s view, the most deeply social of art forms? (1030)

22. General question: In our excerpt from Discourse in the Novel, Mikhail Bakhtin explores the dynamic, “dialogic” qualities of language, particularly the language one finds in novelistic fiction. One gets the sense that within a supposedly unitary language, there are almost infinitely many levels, registers, or “strata” of language wielded by the full panoply of groups and individuals in a given society. Many readers will probably find a postmodern quality in this work—a feeling spurred on by the fact that Bakhtin’s work as a critic and theorist only came into vogue in the West during the 1970s-80s, a time when post-structuralist thinking was dominant. What postmodern or post-structuralist-seeming qualities do you find in Bakhtin’s notions about language and novelistic fiction? Another way to pose this question is to ask, what traditional ideas about linguistic exchange does Bakhtin explicitly reject, and why so? Explain.

23. General question: In our excerpt from Discourse in the Novel, Mikhail Bakhtin praises the “dialogic” and “heteroglossic” qualities of novelistic prose and contrasts it with poetic genres, which he insists remain non-dialogic in their style and fundamental modality. (See especially 1018-21.) It should be granted that Bakhtin does not mean to denigrate poetic discourse or, more plainly, “poetry,” but do you find that his comparative treatment of that kind of literary art does it justice? Why or why not? Is he missing something special about the way poetry proceeds as language, or do you think his treatment of poetry is justifiable? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake