Study Guide

Mikhail Bakhtin Buzzwords

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This idea gets big airtime in my book on Rabelais. Forget everything you know about The Ringling Brothers, and hear me out. The carnival is a social institution and a concept, yes. But it also represents resistance to official life—that dry, governmental, well-mannered, institutional, dutiful form of existence.

Life in the carnival square was, as I explain elsewhere, free and unrestricted, full of laughter, profanity, mockery of everything sacred. You know, full of debasing and obscenities and overly familiar interactions with everyone and everything. (See Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics for more detail.)

These two worlds coexist, but are strictly divided. One is a big bummer; the other one is fun. Best of all, the carnival square ridicules official life, depriving it of its power. How does it do this, you might ask? Through derision, radical laughter, bad manners, and bodily excess. You in?


This concept is at the heart of why I have such warm fuzzy feelings about Dostoevsky. The "dialogic" nature of his arguments means that you can read his books and never know what he specifically thinks because he doesn't force one idea to claim authorial dominance. He has these characters all running around, sharing ideas, "dialoguing," arguing, and exchanging words. Basically, Dostoevsky is willing to have a good healthy argument with himself. If you want an example, pick up The Brothers Karamazov, and you'll see how he includes all sorts of voices, tones, and textures.

Grotesque/The Grotesque Body

This one is a concept—or "literary trope" if you want to get all fancy—that I developed in my work on Rabelais. I'm no prude, so I like to get down and dirty (at least in a theoretical way) with all things body-related. All of those abstract, noble ideals aren't my cup o' tea. Give me some unruly biology, and I can show you how burping and farting can be a political act. The grotesque body is of the love of life—unafraid of flaw, death, and decay.

By embracing the grotesque, you can find new meaning and get away from the confines of control. If it helps to imagine a terribly unattractive person walking down the catwalk at a haute couture show, then by all means do so. Such a person may be received with disgust, but is just as likely to be greeted by applause and relief that someone has had the nerve to flaunt imperfection.


According to this concept, a rose is not always a rose. Translation: the meaning you assign a word is probably different from the meaning I assign to a word. So language isn't as clear-cut as you may think. Ya dig? (If this idea is really exciting to you, check out my essay "Discourse in the Novel.")

Heteroglossia means power to the people because it recognizes the value of different types of speech—characters and narrators alike. Even in "real life," every utterance takes place within a collection of social situations. Let the worldviews blend!


I often use this fancy word (which literally means "many voices") in close association with dialogue, throwing together phrases like "polyphonic dialogue" to talk about how various voices interact in a novel. (If it sounds like a reference to music, that's because it is). I talk a lot about this term in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics because I have an endless fascination with the Russian author's capacity to include many voices in his work. By allowing his characters to "do the talking," as it were, Dostoevsky rejects the self-opinionated authorial voice. We get to see the world through the perspectives of all sorts of people—with their sometimes-shocking, sometimes-subversive opinions.

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