Mikhail Bakhtin: Notes on “Epic and Novel” (Part 5)*

Since the novel emerges in the world of ployglossia, the novel, thus, has the capacity of “developing and renewing literature and in its linguistic and stylistic dimensions” (12). This concludes Bkahtin’s discussion of the first of three basic characteristics of the novel: “Its stylistic three-dimensionality” (11).

Bakhtin then moves on to discuss, in comparison with the epic, the other two characteristics of the novel: 1) “The radical change it effects in the temporal coordinates of the literary image”; 2) “The new zone opened by the novel for structuring literary images, namely, the zone of maximal contact with the present (with contemporary reality) in all its openendedness” (11). To make this comparison more fruitful, Bakhtin first describes the basic characteristic of the epic.

Three Constitutive Features of the Epic:

  1. A national epic past (absolute past) serves as the subject for epic.
  2. A national tradition (not personal experience) serves as the source for epic.
  3. An absolute epic-distance separates the epic world from contemporary reality, that is, from the time in which the singer (the author and his audience) lives. (13)

These three constitutive features serve as a comparative grid upon which Bakhtin plots the rise and description of the novel in comparison with the epic. It is important first, therefore, to understand his discussion of these characteristics as our understanding of the his theory of the novel depends on it.

The World of the Epic:

  • Is the national heroic past: it is a world of “beginnings” and “peak times” in national history.
  • The epic was never a poem about the present, about its own time.
  • It is “from the beginning a poem bout the past” and the “authorial position” is that of a “man speaking about a past that is to him inaccessible, the reverent point of view of a descendent” (13).
  • The singer and the listener are at the same temporal plane-the present–but “the represented world of the heroes stands on an utterly different and inaccessible time-and-value plane, separated by epic distance” (14).
  • The space between the singer-listener and the heroes of the epic is “filled with national tradition” (14).

Thus, as we understand it, the narrative content of the epic is always from an absolute past, underwritten by a shared national tradition, and while the singer-listener inhabit the contemporary time, the story itself is located in the past and is always about a past. To render the past contemporary, by eliminating the epic distance, would, in Bakhtin’s words, mean “to undertake a radical revolution, and to step out of the world of epic into the world of novel” (14)

* This is my reading summary, with some brief comments, of Bakhtin’s essay “Epic and Novel: Toward a Methodology for the Study of the Novel.” All citations are from  The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays.Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981)

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