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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton November 23, 2020

Between interpretation and the subject: Revisiting Bakhtin’s theory of polyphony

Jie Zhang and Hongbing Yu
From the journal Semiotica


This paper affords a critical and historical reappraisal of Bakhtin’s theory of polyphony. It addresses the issue of the subjectivity of interpretation in the reception and formulation of this highly influential theory in literary semiotics. Following a revaluation of three major patterns of interpretation of polyphony that have emerged in the global field of literary theory since 1929, as well as Bakhtin’s shift in emphasis in 1963, we find that Bakhtin’s theorizing of polyphony, based on his seemingly inconsistent interpretation of Dostoevsky’s novels, was defined by his own subjectivity as well. An obvious consequence of such subjective predispositions in both the reception of Bakhtin’s theory and his own treatment of Dostoevsky’s polyphonic novels is that they have instigated a type of perpetuating availability bias in approaching the theory of polyphony. This revelation is key to understanding the wholeness of the theory of polyphony from a diachronic perspective. By tracing the cultural and intellectual sources of Dostoevsky’s polyphonic creation, this paper attempts to reframe and restore the Bakhtinian idea of polyphony to its fullness, which we believe can be encapsulated in one phrase: harmony without uniformity.

Corresponding author: Hongbing Yu, Faculty of Arts, Ryerson University, Toronto, ON, Canada, E-mail:

Funding source: National Office for Philosophy and Social Sciences

Award Identifier / Grant number: National Social Science Fund of China (19CYY002)

Funding source: Priority Academic Program Development of Jiangsu Higher Education Institutions

Award Identifier / Grant number: PAPD: Phase III, Nanjing Normal University (20180101)


The writing of this article was supported by the Significant National Social Science Fund of China (15ZDB092).


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Published Online: 2020-11-23
Published in Print: 2021-01-27

© 2020 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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