Mikhail Bakhtin

Don't you think it's fascinating that a single language can have so many variations that even native speakers might have trouble understanding each other? Accents and dialects are ways in which languages become closely tied to their users. 

Mikhail Bakhtin Mikhail Bakhtin

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    While they enrich a language, the presence of dialects and colloquialisms complicate our perception of language as a fixed system of meaning with rigid rules on how to use it. According to the Russian literary theorist, critic, and scholar Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975), language carries a harmony of expressions specific to every speaker. Bakhtin devised this view primarily based on the use of language in Russian literature. Bakhtin is now celebrated by academics for his books, ideas, and theory of dialogism.

    Mikhail Bakhtin: biography

    Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin was born in 1895 in Orel (also known as Oryol) in Russia in a family of six children. Bakhtin's father worked for the Orel Commercial Bank. Despite claims of aristocratic origins, the family belonged to the middle class but was, nonetheless, wealthy. Bakhtin spent parts of his childhood in Orel, Vilnius, and Odessa before the family was separated by the Russian Civil War (1917–1921) and the ensuing social turmoil. Bakhtin received a degree in classics and philology from the University of St. Petersburg (now called St. Petersburg State University) in 1918, at a time when intellectual debates around Symbolism and Formalism were at their peak. After completing his studies, Bakhtin moved to a small city in Pskov Oblast, Russia, where he worked as a school teacher. There he formed important intellectual connections that came to be known as the 'Bakhtin Circle'.

    Symbolism: an art and intellectual movement that focused on symbols and indirect imagery to express ideas.

    Formalism: a philosophical and academic position that focuses on form over the content of a text.

    The Bakhtin Circle

    In his new place of domicile, Bakhtin befriended Soviet scholars, like the linguist Valentin Nikolaevich Voloshinov (1895–1936) and the literary scholar Pavel Nikolaevich Medvedev (1891–1938). Together with Bakhtin, they became members of a social group referred to as the Bakhtin Circle. The group was inspired by a common interest in intellectual pursuits, arts, and philosophical debates. They made significant contributions to a range of subjects in humanities, including literature, language, history, and culture. The group slowly faded due to the rise of Joseph Stalin (1878–1953) as the leader of the Communist party in the 1920s and the subsequent crackdown on intellectual activity and freedom in the Soviet Union.

    Mikhail Bakhtin Biography StudySmarterFig. 1 - This is one of the rare photos of Mikhail Bakhtin

    Bakhtin was arrested in 1929 and spent several years in internal exile. Bakhtin went into hiding in the late 1930s and during World War II. He later secured a teaching post in a provincial university, still maintaining an inconspicuous existence. Bakhtin died in 1975 in Moscow at the age of 79.

    Communism is a political and economic philosophy that emerged in nineteenth-century Europe. Communism aims to create a classless society through public ownership of all property and wealth. In many communist states in history, however, political systems crossed over to dictatorship, resulting in totalitarian control, censorship, and persecution of intellectuals and dissenters.

    Mikhail Bakhtin: theory

    Bakhtin's works were originally written and published in Russian and did not receive much recognition in his lifetime. In the 1960s and 1970s, two scholars named Sergei Georgievich Bocharov and Vadim Valerianovich Kozhinov succeeded in getting some of Bakhtin's unpublished materials printed, which caught the attention of academics. The lack of context and biographical information was a major obstacle in analysing and interpreting Bakhtin's works. The popularity and regard Bakhtin's works enjoy today in the English-speaking world were not realised until his works were translated into English much later than they were originally published.

    The Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia Kristeva (b. 1941), who later became a famous theorist and semiotician herself, started off her early years by contemplating Bakhtinian concepts, especially with regard to language. As a new Bulgarian scholar in France, Kristeva presented Bakhtin's theories to a group of academics, including Roland Barthes, arguing that Bakhtin had a unique critical approach towards language.

    Semiotics is the study of signs and their role in the generation of meaning in language.

    Kristeva was referring to Bakhtin's view of language as a system where meaning is produced through the interactions between the user (speaker), the utterance, and the context. This view digressed from the structuralist notion that held language as an abstract yet self-contained system of meanings.

    Structural linguistics

    Developed by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), structural linguistics is a school of linguistics that sees language as a system of signs, with a focus on the structure of the language rather than its origins. Saussure made a key distinction between the underlying structure of language (langue) and the individual sounds or utterances that constitute the language (parole).

    If that piqued your curiosity, here's more on the semiotic term 'sign'!

    Although language is made up of individual signs, they exist in relation to one another and are defined by one another.

    Simply put, we understand what the word 'cat' means because we know it to be different from the word 'dog'. However, the relationship between the literal word and the concept is arbitrary, i.e., random. There is no inherent correlation between the word and what it stands for! Food for thought, isn't it?

    Bakhtin: key ideas

    The most widely discussed Bakhtinian concepts include heteroglossia, carnivalesque, polyphony, and dialogism.


    Bakhtin borrowed the term polyphony from music to talk about the different narrative voices in a novel. He introduced the concept of polyphony in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1963), a text that was seminal in the study of the novels by the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881).

    Polyphony is the existence of multiple narrative voices alongside the authorial voice.

    According to Bakhtin, Dostoevsky's success as a novelist is in achieving equality between the voice of the author and that of the characters in the novel, especially the hero. The different voices are also not subdued or subordinated by the author's voice. The protagonist in the novel, therefore, is not a mere manifestation of the author's voice. Instead, the characters represent a multiplicity of voices entitled to their own stories within the novel.

    Mikhail Bakhtin: dialogism

    Bakhtin encouraged his readers to look at the contexts, history, and evolutions of things being considered. He refused to treat subjects in isolation, removed from the interactions that influence their existence and meaning.

    In simple words, dialogism in literary studies talks about how meaning is formed out of the interactions (dialogue) between the writer, the characters in a novel and its readers.

    At the core of Bakhtinian dialogism is the idea that nothing has a self-sufficient existence separate from other things. On the contrary, things can only be understood through their relations and interactions with other things.

    Monologism vs dialogism

    Monologism refers to an interaction where a dominant voice, namely the author, provides all the information, whereas dialogism refers to the process of creating meaning through interactions and by eliciting a conversation.

    For example, compare watching a video tutorial on the internet and participating in a group discussion! Similarly, in a dialogic novel, the author almost disappears into the background as if to simply provoke conversations and actions in the novel.


    The concept of heteroglossia is similar to polyphony. Bakhtin discusses heteroglossia in the essay 'Discourse in the Novel', now included in the book The Dialogic Imagination (1981). In the essay, Bakhtin defends the aesthetic quality of the prose.

    The Formalists favoured poetic language as superior. Bakhtin argues in the essay that Formalism neglected the aesthetic quality of language in novels.

    Heteroglossia describes the existence of varieties of speech within a single language, influenced by the identity and the circumstances of the speaker.

    Heteroglossia refers to the diversity of speech types, social dialects, and generational speech patterns within a linguistic community, causing the language to be stratified. As opposed to seeing language as a 'neutral' reservoir of words and meanings, Bakhtin made a compelling case for language to be seen as a system driven by forces of linguistic variation.


    Bakhtin's term 'carnivalesque' is based on carnival, a form of celebration where social norms and codes of behaviour are commonly flouted. Historically, carnival in Europe was usually centred around a day of religious or historical significance and was the only time of the year when revelry and festivities were permitted, especially for the lower classes.

    Bakhtin describes the narrative in certain novels as containing carnivalesque imagery. Bakhtin introduced the concept of carnivalesque in his book Rabelais and His World (1968). Carnivalesque imagery takes on the festive nature of the carnival and plays on its capacity to subvert power through role inversions and reversals, mockery and debasement.

    Mikhail Bakhtin Theory StudySmarterFig. 2 - Carnival is a time when rules and conventions of everyday life are suspended.

    There are several features of the carnivalesque. They include:

    • Free interactions between strangers.
    • Eccentric and bawdy behaviour.
    • Dressing up, cross-dressing, and role play.
    • Obsession with the body, sexual innuendos, and playfulness.
    • Breakdown of ranks, hierarchies, and distinctions such as good and evil, sacred and the profane, which Bakhtin described as 'carnivalistic mésalliances'.
    • Mockery, profanity, blasphemy, and absence of respect for social systems and rules.

    Mikhail Bakhtin: Formalism

    Formalism is a critical approach that placed importance on the form of a work of literature. The Formalists argued that form should take precedence in literary analysis over the content and the social realities presented through and by a book.

    Formalism in Russia flourished during Bakhtin's time. Although Bakhtin is often included in conversations related to Russian Formalism, Bakhtin's views digressed from those of the Formalists in many ways. He also criticised the Formalist approach and its disregard for social and political realities outside of a text. As a Marxist thinker, Bakhtin argued that language could not be removed from its socio-political contexts.

    Marxism: a branch of political and economic principles based on the ideas of Karl Marx (1818–1883).

    Mikhail Bakhtin: quotes

    Instead of a neutral system of meaning, in Bakhtin's view, every language is stratified and contains a multitude of 'languages' (e.g., speech genres, dialects, slang, professional jargon and so on) within.

    The style of the novel is its combination of styles; the language of the novel is a system of “languages”.

    'Discourse in the Novel' (1934)

    In a dialogic novel (as opposed to the monologic novel in which the author dictates the fate of their characters), the protagonist functions autonomously with regard to the novelist and evolves naturally in relation to the other aspects of the novel.

    Heroes, as heroes, are generated by the plot itself.

    Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1963)

    Bakhtin recognised the mutual influence of factors that are external to a language in its practical usage. The literary language was no exception.

    Style is understood as the individualisation of a common language (in the sense of a system of common linguistic norms).

    'Discourse in the Novel' (1934)

    Mikhail Bakhtin: books

    Getting materials published was a challenge during Bakhtin's time because of social turbulence, war, and censorship. Even when Bakhtin's works were published, they were often corrected, edited, or named by someone other than Bakhtin. After Bakhtin’s rediscovery in the 1960s, the majority of Bakhtin’s unpublished works were published, although many of them were recovered in censored form and were either distorted or modified substantially.

    Bakhtin's most influential books include Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1963) and Rabelais and His World (2009). Questions of Literature and Aesthetics (1975) and The Aesthetics of Verbal Art (1979), together with these books on Dostoevsky and Rabelais, became Bakhtin's essential oeuvre in the Anglophone world.

    Art and Answerability (1990), Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (1986), and Toward a Philosophy of the Act (1986) are more examples of Bakhtin's books. The Dialogic Imagination, published in 1981, is a collection of four influential essays by Bakhtin. Bakhtin's translators include Michael Holquist (1935–2016), Caryl Emerson (b. 1944), and Hélène Iswolsky (1896–1975).

    Mikhail Bakhtin - Key takeaways

    • Mikhail Bakhtin was a Russian literary theorist and critic.
    • He was born in 1895 and spent his childhood in Orel, Vilnius, and Odessa in Russia.
    • Bakhtin spent parts of his life in hiding in Russia and maintained a low profile because of the Communist government.
    • Many of Bakhtin's original works were rediscovered many years after they were written and were translated into English later.
    • Bakhtin is known for the ideas such as dialogism, heteroglossia, and carnivalesque.


    1. Fig. 2 Marc-Lautenbacher, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
    2. Mikhail Bakhtin, 'Discourse in the Novel', 1934
    3. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, 1963
    Frequently Asked Questions about Mikhail Bakhtin

    Who is Mikhail Bakhtin?

    Bakhtin was an influential Russian literary critic and theorist of the twentieth century.

    Is Mikhail Bakhtin a theorist?

    Bakhtin was a Russian literary theorist and critic, who was loosely associated with Russian Formalism and well-known for ideas such as polyphony, heteroglossia, and dialogism.

    Why are Mikhail Bakhtin's theories important for literary criticism?

    Bakhtinian dialogism points out the interaction of different voices within the novelistic discourse, rather than monologic novels where the author's voice dominates every aspect of the novel. Bakhtin critiqued the Formalist preoccupation with poetic language, neglecting the aesthetic value of prose.

    What is Mikhail Bakhtin known for?

    Bakhtin is famous for ideas like heteroglossia, carnivalesque, and dialogism.

    What is Bakhtinian theory?

    Bakhtin introduced many new ideas about language and style, especially in the novel. His most significant theories heteroglossia and dialogism are about the presence of multiple voices within a novel and their interaction.

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