Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 3 No. 1, May 1985

Rabelais and Gogol: Verbal Art and Popular Humour

Mikhail Bakhtin

This article, translated by Michael O'Toole, was originally a section of Bakhtin's doctoral thesis on Rabelais, submitted to Moscow University. It was first published in Russian in Voprosy literury i estetiki (Problems of literature and aesthetics), Moscow, 1975, 484-495. Only the first page is available here.

In my book on Rabelais I attempted to demonstrate that the basic creative principles of that great writer's work are defined by the past culture of popular humour. One of the central inadequacies of contemporary literary scholarship is that it attempts to squeeze all literature—particularly that of the Renaissance—into the framework of official culture. But Rabelais' work can only really be understood in the continuity of popular culture which has always, throughout its evolution, stood in opposition to the official culture and has worked out its own distinctive view of the world and distinctive forms for reflecting that world in images.

Literary criticism and aesthetics normally start from the narrow and impoverished manifestations of the comic in the literature of the last three centuries, and they attempt to confine Renaissance comedy as well into these narrow conceptions of humour and comedy; yet these conceptions are far from adequate even for understanding Molière.

Rabelais is the heir and consummation of thousands of years of popular humour. His work is an irreplaceable key to the whole of European comic culture in its most powerful, profound and original manifestations.

Here I want to discuss the most significant example of comic literature of the modern period—the work of Gogol. I will only be considering the elements of popular humour in his work.

I shall not consider the direct and indirect influence on Gogol of Rabelais (through Sterne and the French 'Natural' school). All that concerns us here are those features of Gogol's work which, independently of Rabelais, reveal his direct connection with forms of popular festivity on his native soil.


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