Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975) - Key Figures in Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975)
Key Figures in Literary Theory

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin was born in Orel, Russia, and was educated at the University of St. Petersburg. In 1918, he left St. Petersburg, at the height of the Revolution, and settled in Vitebsk, where he worked as a school teacher. He also became the leading figure in the Bakhtin Circle, whose members combined formalist methods with ideological critique in the study of language, discourse, aesthetics, and literature. The writings of key members of this group, including P. N. Medvedev and V. N. Voloshinov, were once considered by scholars to have been written by Bakhtin, but the consensus now is that Medvedev and Voloshi- nov were responsible for the texts that bear their names. In 1924, Bakhtin moved to Leningrad, where he had difficulties finding employment due to his lack of enthusiasm for Marxism. By 1929, he had the misfortune of drawing the attention of Stalin's regime which, in those early years, conducted regular purges of intellectuals. He was accused of associating with the underground Orthodox Church, a charge that has never been substantiated or dismissed, and sentenced to internal exile, first in Kazakhstan (1930-36), where he worked on a collective farm, later in Mordovia (1937-69), where he taught at the Mordov Pedagogical Institute in Saransk. Throughout these years, Bakhtin suffered from poor health and in 1938 had to have one of his legs amputated.

In Leningrad, in the years before his exile, Bakhtin produced his first important work, The Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929), which explored the structures of novelistic prose and introduced the concept of DIALO- GISM. In the 1930s and '40s, Bakhtin introduced two seminal concepts: HETEROGLOSSIA, a discourse “environment” characterized by polyphony, by multiple languages, dialects, jargons, and other discursive forms; and the CARNIVALESQUE, a mode of subversive representation based on the inversion of hierarchies. Also during this time, he began studying the Bildungsroman, but most of this work was destroyed when his publisher's premises was bombed by the Germans. Due to a shortage of cigarette paper, Bakhtin was forced to use the pages of the prospectus to roll cigarettes. Fragments of the work were published in Speech Acts and Other Late Essays (1979).

After Stalin's death in 1953, Bakhtin's work attracted more notice by scholars and by the late 1950s he was a well-known and respected figure among the Soviet intellectual elite as well as among European circles familiar with Russian Formalism. Though grounded in formalist thought, Bakhtin was primarily interested in the material implications of language and literature on social discourses. His was a materialist Formalism. In 1973, the essays on the novel written in the 1930s were published, and they solidified his reputation in the Soviet Union. Lionized and widely influential, Bakhtin died in 1975. These essays, translated into English as The Dialogic Imagination (1981), are Bakhtin's most important contribution to Poststructuralism and the theory of the novel.


Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist; Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Austin Press, 1981.

---- . Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

---- . Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge: The M.I.T Press, 1968.