Research article
Issue: № 2 (18), 2019


The comic word is a crucial element of the general theory of culture of popular laughter devised by M. Bakhtin in the 1930-1960s. The comic word theory does not have a complete form, and therefore requires a more detailed de-scription and further reconstruction. The article examines the process of the theory formation in the context of the evolution of Bakhtin’s literary interests based on the methods of modern academic literary studies, identifies the main characteristics and attempts aimed at reconstructing the theory of the comic word.


Laughter and comic culture is a critical part of M. Bakhtin’s heritage. The correlation of the concepts within the “laughter perspective” enables the clarification of specific definitions and deepens the understanding of the critical components of the scientist’s heritage as a whole. Bakhtin builds the story of laughter, describes the system of comic genres, and creates the concept of the comic word, which originates and develops within the problem field of “literary laughter.” In the scientific space of M. Bakhtin’s works, the concept of the “comic word” refers to the ideas with a clear, incomplete meaning. It is not by chance that in his sketch “On the Issues of Self-Consciousness and Self-Esteem...” he speaks of “the conditionality and limitations of any term” [7, P.79]. This approach largely explains the degree of freedom with which Bakhtin unfolds the meaning of the comic word. The theory of the comic word does not have a complete form, [11], [19], and therefore, requires a more detailed description and further reconstruction.

The publication of M. Bakhtin’s “Collected Writings” in the mid-1990s-early 2010s opened up new opportunities for the researchers to study various aspects of his scientific heritage [1], [17]. Textual, commentary and research work presented in the “Collected Writings” enables both the correction and supplementation of the observations previously made and the use of new concepts in the course of describing the phenomena of culture and literature.


The problem presented in the article is interdisciplinary and requires the combination of traditional methods of academic literature and the use of tools and techniques, enabling an integrated approach. Thus, the study is built on the combination of comparative historical, biographical, socio-cultural methods and elements of historical and humanitarian research along with the technique of content analysis, the method of continuous sampling, and corpus linguistics. Only this methodological approach enables presenting the phenomenon of the comic word in a more comprehensive way not only as a cultural, philosophical, artistic and aesthetic phenomenon but also as a theoretical construct consistently unfolding in the scientific work of Bakhtin in the 1920s-early 1970s.


“The plot on laughter” is conceived rather early by Bakhtin, it happens during his stay in pre-revolutionary Petrograd [7, P.419] when the Bakhtin circle [23] was formed, but remained secondary. In his early works, the theory of the verbal phrasing of laughter has not yet been outlined, though Bakhtin paid serious attention to the connection between the ethical and the comic while building up his moral philosophy, in particular, in the fragments entitled “Toward the Philosophy of the Act.” We emphasize that the process of “self-exclusion” (as an integral part of “outside being,” essential concept of Bakhtin’s early philosophy) is mainly described through the examples from the literature that are accompanied by philosophical, historical and literary-theoretical analysis [2, P.81-83].

A detailed interpretation of the comic word is prepared through the analysis of the whole range of phenomena of language, literature, and culture (laughter, multilingualism, dialogical contradiction, parody, grass-roots genres, theatrical and areal chronotope, etc.).

In the 1920s, the issues of laughter and the comic are implicitly present manifesting themselves in the phrasing and characteristics consistent with the terminology of the next decades, as N. Nikolayev notes [21, P. 807]. Let us note that at the same time, in the “Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity” (1920-1924), a circle of concepts is created, which are in their essence, close to Bakhtin’s “laughter terminology” of the 1930s (anticipating it to some extent). Thus, the scientist uses the concepts of “irony,” “humourizing,” “satirizing,” “satirical task,” “ridicule by being”; considers the background as the “revelation” or “disclosure” of the hero, describes the position that allows the author to “imitate man and life” [2, P. 259].

In “Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art” (1929), Bakhtin approaches the description of the mechanisms of laughter verbalization. The emphasis on the word of the author, on the speaking character and his two-voiced word, are focused around the problem of laughter. Initially, laughter is described together with other non-verbal markers of the presence of a second voice in a word, and also as a behavioral manifestation of a hero fixing “the result of a breakdown, interference of two voices in one voice, two replicas – in one replica” [3, P. 165]. In the typology presented in the book on Dostoevsky’s poetics and examples of specific analysis of the word of heroes (Devushkin’s “verbal minds,” teasing “parody-exaggerating” style of the “The Double,” the “addressing word” of a person from the underground, Myshkin’s “heartfelt word” “word with a loophole” by Golyadkin, Nastasya Filippovna, Ippolit) particular attention is paid to “the word with a loophole.” On the one hand, the scientist notes the characteristic feature of the Dostoevsky’s method – the “incompleteness” of the hero, which is manifested in the word, on the other – Bakhtin emphasizes the mechanism of the emergence of the two-voiced word, including the comic word. The characteristic given to this phenomenon is close to the future definition of carnivalization of consciousness and a word with one fundamental difference – in “Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art” it refers to individual consciousness [3, P. 133-134]. The type of “words with a loophole” as a description of the words of Golyadkin, Nastasya Filippovna, and Ippolit “prepares” the ideas of the carnivalesque source of the novelistic word of Dostoevsky and eccentricity as signs of carnivalesque literature. Bakhtin problematizes the issue of the parodic word and its role in achieving a specific dialogism of the novelistic word, entering into polemics with the understanding of the parody characteristic of the Russian formal school, in particular with Yu.Tynyanov and V.Vinogradov [12], [13], [24].

No doubt that his early works testify to the interest in the discourse of laughter and its consistent problematization when considering someone else’s word, narrative word, parody word, designating such parody features as multidirectional and multilevel statements. It can be said that in the 1920s the scientist “shaped” the concept, his idea of the comic word “ripened” and will be later presented in the 1930-1940s in a relatively complete form.

Articulation of problematic contexts that will be relevant for the understanding of the specifics of the comic word can be found in the works of the 1930s, particularly in “Word in the Novel” (first half of the 30s) and “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel” (1937- 1939). “Word in the Novel” outlines the future concept of the comic word, its pages are devoted to the issues of the philosophy of the word-utterance (“the phenomenon of internal dialogue” [4, P. 37]), the philosophy of the word in the novel (a novelistic word as a hybrid construct), sociology (formation of literary-linguistic consciousness). Bakhtin emphasizes, “We consider language not as a system of abstract grammatical categories, but as an ideologically-filled language, a language as a world view, and even as a concrete opinion providing maximum mutual understanding in all spheres of ideological life” [4, P. 24] [Singled out by M. Bakhtin. – S.D., V.K.]. In his study on the chronotope, Bakhtin further unfolds this idea, “We treat laughter, not as a biological and psycho-physiological act, but laughter in its objectified socio-historical cultural existence, primarily in verbal expression. The comic word manifests itself in diverse phenomena not yet subjected to a sufficiently deep, historical, and systematic study” [4, P. 483].

Distinguishing a word in poetry and a word in the novel, the scholar, highlights such possibilities of the author of the story as emphasizing the word (in a humorous, ironic way or as parody) creating a “speech thing,” using the stratification of the language to orchestrate the “author’s intentional theme.” As a separate turn in the consideration of the problem, a comic novel and a unique comic style based on the common language stratification, as well as related phenomena of hybrid design and pseudo-objective motivation, can be singled out [4, P. 61].

The philosophy of the word of Rabelais becomes the subject of Bakhtin’s attention in the early 1930s, when in his “Word in the Novel” he begins to talk about its expression in “the practice of verbal style” [4, P. 63]. The thought of the scientist about the connection of the birth of the novel varieties with the “parodic destruction of alien romance worlds” of Cervantes, Rabelais and others [4, P. 63] is quite characteristic. At the heart of the novel, according to M. Bakhtin, there are words “mimicking someone else’s words in humorous works and serious transfer in various areas of culture and ideology.” It is here that both lines are formed (comic and serious), intersecting and converging “in the novel image of the language and the person speaking” [4, P. 106]. The “Word in the Novel” contains one of the first uses of the notion of “laughter.” It is known from the comment to the text that this fragment was included later when editing it (See the text history of the book [4, P. 727-728]): “on the margins” of the work, the scientist derives the idea of a dialogical convergence of the laughable and serious in the novelistic word and the need to take ambivalence into account.

Considering the genre varieties of grassroots diversity, the scientist identifies the lack of “adequate theoretical awareness and presentation,” characteristic of the novels by Cervantes, Rabelais, Fielding, Stern, and others, “a specific feeling of the language and word” “finding expression in pasticcio, in narration, in various forms of verbal disguise, “indirect speaking” and in more complex artistic forms of organizing the diversity of words” [4, P. 28]. Focusing on the stylistic issues of the novel and various aspects of the novel genre as a whole, Bakhtin emphatically divides the “top” and the “bottom” of the national language: “recognized literary language” – “dialogized contradiction.” In this confrontation, we also see the first approach to the phenomenon of the comic word as a particular phenomenon in the space of the comic culture. Among its manifestations, there are “jesting contradiction,” “imitation of all “languages” and “live game with “languages,” their “parody” and “polemical accentuation against the official languages of modernity” [4, P. 26-27].

Bakhtin directly linked the dialogic controversy with the figures of the knave, the jester and the fool, which generated the comic discourse. Returning to the figures of the areal in a separate chapter of his work “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel,” Bakhtin concluded that they were important in literature. They, the scientist emphasized, “bring with them into literature” “a very significant connection with theatrical stages, with a spectacular arena mask” [4, P. 411]. These figures, giving rise to a particular type of the comic discourse, which can be defined precisely as a “comic word,” have an impact on the genre of the novel itself, and the formation of the author’s unique position. Remarkably, Bakhtin changes the trope of the literary space connecting it with the space of the square, the literary chronotope with the theatrical and similar genre synthesis. It suggests that for M. Bakhtin the comic word exists not only within a literary text, but also gives rise to extra-literary laughter situations and, in turn, is itself very often a result of them, i.e., possesses the necessary ambivalence.

In the same work, “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel,” M. Bakhtin named various forms of the genre existence of the comic word: numerous ironic and parody “forms of indirect speaking” arise next to tropes, and accordingly “the whole language can be used in the improper meaning.” “In all these phenomena,” emphasized the scientist, “the very point of view contained in the word, the modality of the language and the attitude of the language to the subject and the attitude of the language to the speaker undergo the process of rethinking [4, P. 483-484]. [Singled out by M.Bakhtin. – S.D., V.K.]. With all the “metalinguistic” nature of this approach, the author very clearly states the final result of this process: “All the listed features of the said forms of expressing laughter in a word create special strength and ability to de-husk an object from the false verbal and ideological shells that envelop it” [4, P. 483-484].

In general, interest to the comic discourse in its literary and extra-literary forms determines the nature of M. Bakhtin’s scientific research throughout this period, and verbal forms of the comic remain at the centre of the scientist’s observations. In the entire history of verbal creativity, according to Bakhtin, “there was not a single, strict direct genre, there was not a single type of direct word — artistic, rhetorical, philosophical, religious, everyday — they would not have received their parody-travesty double, comic-ironic contre-partie. Moreover, these parody doubles and laughter reflections of a direct word were in some cases as consecrated by tradition and as canonical as their high types” [4, P. 524].

The research of the forms of the verbal expression of laughter conducted by Bakhtin when studying Rabelais is the research of his festive forms and images, the carnival word and its influence on the style of great literature. Let us dwell on the characteristics of the festive chronotope, which gives rise to individual types of comic words – areal words and festive words. Associated with a particular territory and with a particular time (festive/fairground; feast/banquet), these types of words convey liberty and freedom of speech, which are characteristic of the people’s festive laughter and carnival word. Just as the atmosphere of a free and funny game fills the festive area, where the high and low, the sacred and the profane equalize their rights and are involved in one friendly verbal dance” [6, P. 175], the same way conversations around the table easily mix the profane with the sacred, the high with the low, the spiritual with the material” [5, P. 279].

The aerial and festive word, the scientist emphasizes, unfolds “the unofficial aspect of the world — unofficial both in its tone (laughter) and in its content (material and physical bottom) [6, P. 212] [Singled out by M. Bakhtin. - S.D., V.K.]. He is convinced that “free familiar and areal communication” [6, P.168] and “table libertinism” [5, P. 292], [6, P. 318] play a crucial role in the history of literature and the history of materialistic thought [6, P. 292]. The scientist considers carnival laughter as the basis of all later forms of the comic. This laughter, he emphasizes, cleanses the seriousness of dogmatism, wrong homogeneity and other manifestations of obscurantist consciousness. Detailing characteristics are confirmed by a wide range of phenomena of literature and culture.

The problem of the relations between the comic word, satire, and comic on the whole forms a separate scientific story. Let us recall that at the end of October 1940, the editorial staff of the Literary Encyclopedia contacted M. Bakhtin and asked him to write an article on satire [7, P. 404-406]. The previously prepared article by S. Nels was rejected by the editors [18]. B. Mikhailovsky, who entered into correspondence with Bakhtin, outlined the publication’s parameters for the article (defining the phenomenon and reviewing the main stages of its development, highlighting the works of the Russian and Soviet satire). The item was not completed; however, the essay on the evolution of satire from this article is one of the versions of the theory and history of the comic word considered in the context of the popular culture of laughter. The idea of “ridicule” was the unifying idea treated as the key to express the author’s distinctive attitude to the reality they describe. At the same time, the understanding of “ridicule” in satire goes back to the general philosophical understanding of laughter by M. Bakhtin, “the negation of the old is inextricably merged here with the assertion of the new and the better” [7, P. 16], while its ambivalent character is the defining feature of satire, which is explained by the folklore core of the genre and its focus on modernity [7, P. 15, 20].

Constructing the history of satire “as a special attitude of the creative to reality,” Bakhtin singled out several positions that are fundamental to the concept of the comic word. First of all, this is the potential of satire to update the genre. Secondly, this is its role in “refreshing” literary languages and creating a novel, thirdly, – the connection of satire with parody and updating time [7, P. 16]. It should be pointed out that all the most important contexts for understanding the comic word are actualized in this essay and described as a system, that is, ideas that outlined in the works and materials of the 1920s and 1930s are summarized. This is continued in the concise formulation of the understanding of the comic word role in the artistic text, as exemplified by the work “Towards the Issues of the Theory of the Novel. The problem of Dialogue, Writing and Autobiography” (beginning of 1941) [4, P. 557-607].

As for the term “comic word,” judging by the archive materials published to date, it first appeared in 1940 in the first edition of the book about Rabelais (“Francois Rabelais in the History of Realism”) and remained till 1970 (“Rabelais and Gogol (Art of the Word and Folk Laughter Culture)”). By the end of the 1930s- the beginning of the 1940s, primarily in connection with the work on the manuscript about Rabelais, Bakhtin outlined his understanding of the comic word as a particular type of the comic discourse. The first characteristic of the comic word is connected with the phenomenon of multilingualism and the intersection of cultures: analyzing the statements made by A. Dietrich in the book “Pulcinella,” Bakhtin summarized, “... specific and extremely free comic word of Sicily and Southern Italy, similar word of Attelan and finally similar jester word of Pulcinella arose on the border of languages and cultures, not only directly adjoined, but intertwined in a certain sense” [5, P. 495-496]. He emphasized that the comic word is a verbal construction of an “open type,” much broader than individual forms of the same “parody word” explicitly saying, “Our term of “parody-travesty word” definitely does not express the whole wealth of types, variations and shades of the comic word” [5, P. 529]. Bakhtin developed this idea in his work “On the Issues of the Theory of the Novel. The problem of Dialogue, Writing and Autobiography” (beginning of1941) and outlined his understanding of the role of the comic word in a work of art, “The phenomenon of the word, combined with laughter, has not yet been thoroughly studied. Meanwhile, the nature of a funny comic word is deeply peculiar: in a special way it applies both to its author (the speaker) and its subject; it has a special sense of the context; its special relation to a common language and speech norms. It breaks the shackles of the deep and impersonal linguistic worldview” [4, P. 571].

It should be noted that chronologically, the fragment appeared after the article on “Satire” prepared by the scholar for the Literary Encyclopedia. Thus, after the history and theory of satire presented in the article, Bakhtin approached a more distinct outline of those problem points in the study of the comic word, which will help unfold and clarify the author’s (speaker’s) boundaries, subject boundaries, explain semantic saturation of contexts, and deepen the perspective of the image. At the same time, this concisely formulated understanding determines the vectors the study of the comic word can move along.

The concept of the comic word acquires special significance on the final pages of the manuscript about Rabelais in the famous scientific article “Rabelais and Gogol.” The researcher’s reference to the material of the Russian literature is methodologically significant here, and this scientific turn was actively rejected by some critics of Bakhtin of the second half of the 1940s-the beginning of the 1970s [9]. Returning to the idea on the enlightening significance of Rabelais, that has already been mentioned, Bakhtin outlines the sources of Gogol’s laughter and particular laughter tradition that has arisen due to the writer in the local literature, “Despite all the differences between Gogol and Rabelais <...> they are very close in the most essential. They are both related to folk, festive, and gothic laughter.” [5, P. 505].

In the “Theses” to the thesis “Francois Rabelais in the History of Realism” submitted to the defense in Gorky Institute of World Literature in the autumn of 1946, Bakhtin, dwelling on the characteristics of medieval and Renaissance laughter (above all referring to Rabelais) and emphasizing its non-official character and inextricable link with the “people’s idea of freedom and truth,” he made a peculiar remark, “But this freedom could only speak in the language of laughter: the free word is a comic word.

<...> the connection of liberty with laughter was determined not only by the outward absence of criticism of a comic word. This relationship was more internal and deep [5, P. 991] [Singled out by M. Bakhtin. – S.D., V.K.].

Despite the characteristics of the comic words voiced here – “free,” “fearless,” “uncensored” – Bakhtin does not give its strict definition. With further refinement of the manuscript and movement in the framework of the “laughter approbation” of N. Gogol’s works, Bakhtin suggested clarifying the meaning of the comic word [6, P. 518-519].

By drawing a possible line in studying the general history of laughter discourse, Bakhtin shows the potential of the comic word in non-laughter genres; he performs a kind of a re-evaluation: the comic word may not only be used in serious styles, but the tragic can also be used in a funny story. The expressed idea is repeated in the “Additions and Amendments to Rabelais,” to some extent destroying the traditional understanding of the Bakhtin’s concept of the comic [7, P. 479]. It is noteworthy that the idea of complementing the serious and the funny continues to be perceived by Bakhtin as significant not only within the framework of purposeful work on the issues of the comic culture but also in the dialogue with younger like-minded people that took place in the 1960s. In particular, in the correspondence with V.Turbin [10].

The preservation of the concept of the comic word in Bakhtin’s texts throughout the 1930-1970s, and its use by the modern Russian literary studies [16], [22] enables ranking it along with such Bakhtin’s terms as “polyphonic novel,” “carnivalesque culture,”  “chronotope” and others.

Bakhtin’s understanding of the comic word acquires a special significance in connection with the scholar’s thoughts on the serious and funny nature of the Russian literature. Let us begin with the statements that conclude the first chapter of the monograph on Rabelais (1965). “... Of all the classics of world literature,” notes Bakhtin, “only Rabelais did not enter the Russian culture, was not organically acclimated by it (unlike Shakespeare, Cervantes, and others).

And this is a very significant gap because a vast world of folk culture of laughter was revealed through Rabelais [6, P. 156-157]. The same thought was repeated in a letter to N.Lyubimov, the translator of the novel by Rabelais [6, P. 639-640].

We emphasize that Bakhtin’s research actually refutes these assertions: the scientist not only identifies the nodal points of the carnival tradition development (mediated influence of Rabelais) but also gives detailed analysis of the phenomena of the Russian literature in terms of reflection and development of folk-laughter traditions, primarily in the works of N .Gogol and F. Dostoevsky.

Suppose that in Bakhtin’s statements he meant “absence of acclimation” of Rabelais’s unreduced laughter, the grotesqueness of his images, powerful comic word. Considering the comic word and carnival tradition in the Russian literature, it is essential not to forget what Bakhtin himself said during the thesis discussion: he did not absolutize the comic tradition, but distinguished it as a new one that was not taken into account earlier, whereas it is vital for understanding and a particular image, as well as general trends in the development of literature. It can be said that Bakhtin analyzes the Russian literature guided by the thesis expressed in the “Working Notes of the 60s-early 70s”: “Everything great must include the element of laughter. Otherwise, it becomes formidable, scary, or proud; in any case, limited. Laughter removes the barrier, makes the way clear” [8, P. 393].

In the manuscript “Francois Rabelais in the History of Realism” (1940) Bakhtin paid particular attention to the specifics of the Russian folk-festive forms explaining the meaning of the word “carnival” in its narrow and extended understanding. The scientist believed that there was no carnival association of folk-festive forms, as was the case with the Western European carnival [8, P. 210].

The plans of the future study about Rabelais contain the circle of the authors of the Russian literature – Pushkin, Gogol, Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy [5, P. 635-644]. However, in his “Additions and Changes to the Edition of 1949-1950,” Bakhtin stipulates the impossibility of the associated research of the Russian culture emphasizing the complexity and depth of the problem, “... the problem of the Russian folk culture of the past is too big and important. Therefore, we did not consider dealing with this problem in the present work possible” [5, P. 540]. Nevertheless, the comic note of the Russian culture and literature is quite expressive in the book about Rabelais.” [8, P. 393].

Bakhtin’s style is distinctive: exploring the originality of the Rabelais’s world, the scientist refers to similar phenomena in the Russian literature and then incorporates these phenomena (enriched by analogy) into the global context, which deepens and clarifies related artistic images. Thus, describing the character of Rabelais’s book, brother Jean, as “the embodiment of the mighty power of the vernacular democratic clergy,” the scholar made a footnote, “Pushkin describes his Russian counterparts,” You are loose, dashing, young friars”” [5, P.79]. M. Bakhtin reveals the comic potential of the Pushkin’s word, writes about the poet’s carnival mind.

“Pushkin’s theme” appears in the first edition of Rabelais and is preserved, specified, supplemented by Bakhtin till 1965. Pushkin’s words confirm everything connected with the characteristic of the squares a place significant in the folk-festive culture about the square and theatrical action. For example, in his work “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel,” the scientist quotes Pushkin when describing the Rabelais’s chronotope, “This “coarse frankness of popular passions,” “freedom of judgment of the square” (Pushkin) Rabelais widely used in his novel” [4, P. 484]. To clarify his theoretical studies, Bakhtin often turned to Pushkin’s images, “Pushkin’s Mozart accepts laughter and parody, and the gloomy Agelastus Salieri does not understand them and is afraid of them” [6, P. 135]. Considering the artistic embodiment of the traditional carnival image of debunking, the scientist focused on the ancient rite of the deathbed dressing and tonsure of kings singling out the famous Pushkin scene from Boris Godunov as “almost complete parallelism of images” [5, P. 188].

A quote from Boris Godunov, included in the first edition of Rabelais as an epigraph to the fourth chapter in the late 1940s was expanded, commented by Bakhtin and incorporated into the 1965 version [6, P. 507-508]. Pushkin’s fragment completes a book about Rabelais. He not only connects the historical reference about carnival life forms and the carnivalization of consciousness in the era of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great [6, P. 291] but also, more importantly, outlines the possibility of considering the Russian culture in a broad world context. It, in turn, leads to a different aspect, not typical for the Russian literary criticism of the 1940-1960s: the selection of the comic in the Russian literature. The dream of Grishka Otrepiev was used by Bakhtin in the monograph “Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics” when he tried to reveal the Russian carnival tradition, “We find a fuller consonance to Raskolnikov’s dream in another work of Pushkin, in Boris Godunov.” We mean the threefold prophetic dream of the Impostor (scene in the cell of the Chudov Monastery) <...> Here is the same carnival logic of the self-styled elevation, nationwide comic debunking on the square and the fall down" [8, P. 193]. The parallelism of images” [5, P. 188].

As for other fragments connected with the study of the carnival word of Pushkin, the episode with the “little tragedy” in “The Miserly Knight” seems to be significant. Bakhtin considered Pushkin’s Baron in the context of the mythical motive of fear of his son, as the inevitable murderer and thief (the myth of Cronos, the tale of Oedipus, “Life is a Dream” by Calderon). This motive, according to Bakhtin, is one of the most famous episodes of the tragedy which suggests a future update [5, P. 239-240].

It is known that this episode caused the reviewers at the defense of the thesis in 1946 to make some remarks, and Bakhtin found it necessary to point to the significance of his observation expressly. He said, “And yet; my approach unfolds in a kind of an unusual shade not smoothly, maybe, a new facet in the image of “The Miserly Knight.” It is an image of perpetuated old age, old age in all aspects, which clings to life, hates youth and, above all, his son. And I am deeply convinced that this is an essential shade” [5, P. 1056].

Bakhtin’s answer is remarkable because the scientist addresses completely unexpected names in the Russian literature proving the non-randomness of his observations. According to his statement, Belinsky, Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov fit into the comic tradition [5, P. 1059].

It is characteristic that M. Bakhtin linked the further analysis of “Rabelais” with the inclusion of Gogol and Pushkin in the research book, and here is what L.Pinsky writes on it (February 21, 1963). “When working on the book, I, of course, will restore the pages about Gogol and even expand them a little. Also, I plan to touch on the elements of the carnival culture of Pushkin (they are, in my opinion, very strong in his writing). I also want to deepen the theoretical (or even philosophical) problem of popular and comic forms” [6, P. 653].

The topic of the comic, the comic word in the works of A. Pushkin remained an unrealized plan of the scientist. Bakhtin outlined the analysis of the initial lines of the first chapter of “Eugene Onegin” in terms of laughter as the basis for the birth of the novelistic word [5, P. 738], he emphasized “the Russian <..,> uniqueness of Pushkin” [5, P. 735], singled out carnival elements in Pushkin’s sketches and unfinished works (“Pope John,” “Scenes from Knightly Times”) [8, P. 516]. It was in numerous Pushkin’s works (from “Boris Godunov” to “The Belkin Tales” and “The Queen of Spades”) that the scientist saw the emerging Russian carnival tradition, which had a decisive influence on the artistic consciousness of F. Dostoevsky [8, P. 188-192].

“Gogol’s theme” is one of the main in Bakhtin’s research field. As mentioned above, in the first edition of the manuscript of Rabelais, Bakhtin planned the scientific article “Rabelais and Gogol.” For the first time, the names Rabelais and Gogol converge in the context of the scholar’s thoughts about the manifestation of the tradition of Rabelaisian laughter in the European literature (“Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel”). Bakhtin not only highlights the unrelenting (as in the European literature) connection of Gogol’s laughter with folklore but also embeds Gogol’s work into the Rabelaisian tradition.

According to the research of I. Popova, Bakhtin planned to write a book about the works of Gogol, as evidenced by numerous materials of the 1940-1950s [20, P. 174]. However, the emphasis in his scientific interest is connected with the nature of Gogol’s laughter and comic word. The main conclusions of the topic are concentrated in the article “Rabelais and Gogol (Art of the Word and Folk Culture of Laughter).” Bakhtin directly links Gogol’s art of verbal expression of laughter with the popular culture of laughter, which, in many ways, influenced the writer’s literary consciousness and worldview. Bakhtin touches upon the meaning of the two traditions of laughter in Gogol’s work, identifies the problem of a comic word in Romanticism and outlines the issue of “two Gogols” [10].

Note that along with the work of Gogol within the analysis of this tradition, Bakhtin turns to the consideration of the specifics of the comic in Dostoevsky’s art. This problem was the subject of research in the chapter on the traditions of Menippean satire and carnivalesque elements in a revised edition of the book on Dostoevsky (1963) [8, P. 121-201]. The monograph “Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics” published in 1963 presented the reader with the innovative look at the features of the writer’s poetics. Here Bakhtin showed the idea of the carnival line of the genre development and the ideas of the carnivalesque attitude and the carnivalization of literature connected with this line. The main innovation was connected with the introduction of the concept of the already declared polyphonic novel and the double-voiced word (in the first edition of “Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics,” 1929), and the completely new concept of the carnivalesque genesis of Dostoevsky’s novels. The monograph of 1963 represented not just an updated essay on the genre and plot composition sources of Dostoevsky’s polyphonic novel, but the concept that did not fit into the general methodological scientific context of the 1960s. Bakhtin builds his understanding of the genre on the border of fiction and extra-artistic reality.

At the same time, among the three “main roots” of the novel as the genre — epic, rhetorical, and carnival — only the latter was given a detailed characteristic. Moreover, it is the carnival source that Bakhtin directly links Dostoevsky’s novel works. The accentuation of the “carnivalesque root” of the genre of the novel makes it possible, according to Bakhtin, to explain the new genre type of Dostoevsky’s novels (combining confession with fiction, the serious with the funny).

Let us recall that the content of the fourth chapter was perceived and is still perceived by a considerable number of literary critics with prejudice as they treat it as a kind of a different fragment “forcibly” integrated into the general text [25], [26]. It seems to us that the position of I. Popova, who showed the “historical roots” of this part of the “Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics” in Bakhtin's scientific search in the 1930s–40s, is more justified. Indeed, already in “Additions and Changes to Rabelais” (1944), Dostoevsky’s work and, in particular, his works “A Gentle Creature,” “Bobok,” “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” as well as individual plot decisions (“Versilov’s Dream,” Svidrigailov’s Dream, “Ivan and the Devil”, Raskolnikov’s Dreams”) are used by Bakhtin for revealing the essence of the Menippean plot [5, P. 737] (but in a concise version: in nominal sentences).

The story on laughter does not end with the book about Dostoevsky. In the “Working Notes of the 60s-beginning of the 70s,” Bakhtin actualizes “comic” ideas emphasizing the liberating character of laughter, pointing out that “everything great must include the comic element” [8, P. 393]. Moreover, returning to the ideas of the early philosophical period and actively rethinking them, as shown by V. Makhlin [15] in his monograph, in his sketches and notes, the scientist actually suggests a working model for turning the author’s word into the author’s comic word, and someone else’s word into someone else’s comic word by addressing the theory of intonation, which he developed in previous decades [14]. It is easy to see that the model is universal in its character and explains the emergence of not only the intonation accent, which denotes the comic component of the word/utterance in a variety of genre designs but also any other word that acquires, a new author’s intention due to the author’s intonation. We are interested in the comic vector of the model proposed by Bakhtin. By projecting what Bakhtin talks about to the process of the comic discourse expansion seeing the “dialogizing background” in the current and emerging comic context we get, according to Bakhtin, the very causation that lies at the basis of the birth of the comic word. At the same time, the scientist explains the changes taking place, as over time, the original meaning of the text and the ideas laid down in it by the author can acquire a completely different perception from subsequent generations, “the context <...> changes with the epochs of perception, which makes the work gain a new sounding” [8, P. 429]. It is impossible to disagree with Bakhtin that the preservation of the original meanings and values occurs only among works and authors, remaining, according to Bakhtin, in “big time” [8, P. 429]. This explains the unchanging nature of the comic words of Aristophanes, Catullus, Boccaccio, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Pushkin, or Gogol.

The continuing interest to laughter and comic word make Bakhtin’s “internal review” to the manuscript of the book by L. Pinsky “Shakespeare’s Dramaturgy. Basic Beginnings” issued in April 1970 remarkable. Reflecting on Shakespeare’s comedies as a whole, Bakhtin repeated his idea about different types of laughter leading to the creation of different kinds of comedy. And this is the principal difference between Shakespeare’s “laughing comedy” and Moliere’s “mocking comedy” for Bakhtin [8, P. 442].

Main findings

Thus, the story of laughter and the comic word takes on a complete form: Bakhtin developed it throughout his life, it remained secondary in the 1920s, but became the focus of his scientific research in the 1930–40s, continuing to attract attention in the following decades – it was finally shaped as the theory of the comic word. And it, in turn, becomes the most critical tool for an adequate understanding of the place and the role of the comic word in literary consciousness in the history of comic discourse around the world and in Russian literature.


The theory, created when Bakhtin was addressing a wide range of historical, literary, philosophical and aesthetic problems, is an organic part of his general comic theory, with no loss to its intrinsic value. With no description of the comic word, it is impossible to perceive the range of problems of comic discourse adequately. The comic word deserves objective attention of modern researchers and allows outlining the limits of the functioning of the comic as a whole as well as its specific forms based on the concept proposed by Bakhtin.


The study was carried out with the financial support of the Russian Foundation for Basic Research within the framework of the research project No. 18-012-00341 A

Conflict of interest

Is not specified


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