Asif Iqbal

Date of Award


Level of Access Assigned by Author

Campus-Only Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Tony Brinkley

Second Committee Member

Deborah Rogers

Third Committee Member

Margaret Lukens


My Master thesis project offers an original reading of J.M. Coetzee’s novel The Master of Petersburg from the Bakhtinian perspective of the disruptive forces of dialogism and dialogic polyphony. The Russian philosopher and theorist Mikhail Bakhtin argued that the literary genre of the novel provides a rich intellectual dimension where the unresolved tensions of human existence are brought to the forefront of the reader’s attention and openly discussed. What makes this literary genre special, he explained, is novel’s providing space for opposite voices and all contrary opinions. Particularly those that are ordinarily suppressed are or can be expressed in the inherently dialogical and polyphonic fabric of the novel.

Bakhtin was particularly interested in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels. In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Bakhtin argued that Dostoevsky invented a fundamentally new novelistic genre, that of the “heteroglot novel,” where the author and the characters are in constant dialogue with each other. Bakhtin reads Dostoevsky as having the ability to structure his novels not only “dialogically” but “hetero-dialogically,” enabling the characters to exist independently, beyond authorial consciousness. Characters emerge as voices in Dostoevskian texts to create a heteroglot social environment. This is in Bakhtin’s view, the highest political attribute of the polyphonic novel: that of imagining, and letting the reader imagine, a democratic society in actu. The herteroglot polyphony of Dostoevsky’s novels demonstrates that the Russian writer was rebelling against the dominant European power-structures, which were, much like the tradition of monologic novels, monological or dictatorial and anti-democratic in essence.

The Master of Petersburg is a tribute to Dostoevsky’s artistic influence. Scholars, notably Jane Poyner, Rachel Lawlan, and Michael Marais, have demonstrated Coetzee’s engagement with Dostoevsky is deeply political and aimed at opposing the colonial rule of the South African government. My analysis of The Master of Petersburg follows the path opened by these excellent scholars.

The father-son relationship in the text enunciates double-thoughts. I read the double-thoughts and confessions as being linked to Dostoevsky’s dialogic analysis of Fyodor and his sons in The Brothers Karamazov. In Coetzee’s novel the dialogic and the political fuse when Dostoevsky comes to learn that his son was connected to Nechaev, the revolutionary. Coetzee, I argue, draws on Frantz Fanon to depict Nechaev. The novel’s depiction of the post-colonial is dialogic as the condition of nineteenth-century revolutionary Russia informs Coetzee’s preoccupation with contemporary colonialism.

My research brings to light the influence of Dostoevsky on Bakhtin and Dostoevsky on Coetzee. I consider not only matters of textuality but also the politics that connect Bakhtin and Coetzee, and contribute to their fascination for Dostoevsky. I argue that their respective fascination for Dostoevsky stems from their continuous engagement with the politics of their time. While Bakhtin indicted Stalinist terror in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Coetzee, in his The Master of Petersburg exposed, however indirectly, the horror of apartheid in South Africa. In summary, my thesis seeks to prove that Bakhtin’s interest in Dostoyevsky’s works and Coetzee’s fictionalization of the complex psycho-social world of Dostoyevsky’s novels are similar in their attempts to confront the complex political questions of authority and censorship in Stalinist Russia (for Bakhtin) and South Africa (for Coetzee).