Mikhail Bakhtin: Notes on “Epic and Novel” (Part 1)*

For Mikhail Bakhtin, the novel as a genre is as “yet uncompleted” and “continues to develop” (3) and that is why it is hard to clearly explain its generic characteristics. Bakhtin’s this essay/book chapter aims to provide a methodology of the novel in comparison with the “completed” and finished genre of the epic.

While discussing the complexities of a theory of the novel, Bakhtin also makes the following, now slightly dated, claim:

Of all the major genres only the novel is younger than writing and the book: it alone is organically receptive to new forms of mute perception, that is, to reading. But of critical importance here is the fact that the novel has no canon of its own. . . . only individual examples of the novel are historically active, not a generic canon as such. (3)

Obviously, by now the novel does have a certain canon, but it still is the only genre that continues to develop and its consumption is still primarily related to the act  of reading. Despite its late arrival and provisional generic status, Bakhtin asserts, the novel also affects and causes a novelization of other genres. In way, then, “parodic stylizations of canonical genres and styles occupy an essential place in the novel” (6). Here is how Bkhatin recounts the way the novel impacts the other “completed” and canonized genres:

They [the other genres] become more free and flexible, their language renews itself by incorporating extraliterary heteroglossia and the “novelistic” layers of literary language, they become dialogized, permeated with laughter, irony, humor, elements of self-parody and finally–this is the most important thing–the novel inserts into these other genres an indeterminancy, a certain semantic openendedness, a living contact with unfinished, still evolving contemporary reality. (7)

Thus, since the novel itself is in touch with the contemporary and fluid, it forces the other genres to become open to change. Novel, thus, is not only a “novel” genre in itself but also causes innovation and change in other older and “completed” genres. This happens, partly, because the novel is grounded in the contemporary reality and being an open and developing genre “it reflects more deeply, more essentially, more sensitively and rapidly, the reality itself in the process of its unfolding” (7). Being a genre of the new and a changing world, the novel, for  Bakhtin,  affects the other genres and since it anticipates its own development and the “development of literature as a whole” (7) it makes the novel the most important genre “as an object of study for the theory as well as the history of literature” (7)

[More Later]

* 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)