Originally, a carnival was a feast observed by Roman Catholics before the Lenten fast began. The word carnival derives, apparently, from the Latin carnem levare, ‘to put away flesh’. Traditionally, meat was not eaten during the Lenten fast: thus, a carnival would be the last occasion on which meat was permissible before Easter. Broadly speaking, a carnival is an occasion or season of revels, of merrymaking, feasting, and entertainment (e.g. a Spanish fiesta).
In times past there were carnivals which were symbolic of the disruption and subversion of authority; a turning upside down of the hierarchical scale (e.g. the Feast of Fools, the Abbot of Misrule, the Boy Bishop).
Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) coined the word “carnivalization’ (he introduces it in the chapter From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse’, in his book The Dialogic Imagination translated in 1981) to describe the penetration or incorporation of carnival into everyday life, and its shaping effect on language and literature.
Early examples of literary ‘carnival’ are the Socratic dialogues (in which what appears to be logic is stood on its head and shown to be illogical) and Menippean satire. A carnivalesque element is also characteristic of burlesque, parody, and personal satire.
Bakhtin puts forward the theory that the element of carnival in literature is subversive; it disrupts authority and introduces alternatives. It is a kind of liberating influence and he sees it as part of the subversion of the sacred word in Renaissance culture. He cites Rabelais as an example of a writer who used carnival (e.g. in Gargantua and Pantagruel,1532-46).
In his book Problems of Dostoiervski’s Poetics (1929), he develops the idea of the carnivalesque in making a contrast between the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoievski. In Tolstoy’s fiction, he sees a type of ‘monologic’ novel where all is subject to the author’s controlling purpose and hand, whereas Dostoievski’s fiction is ‘dialogic’ or ‘polyphonic’. Many different characters express varying, independent views that are not ‘controlled’ by the author to represent the author’s viewpoint. They are ‘not only objects of the author’s word, but subjects of their own directly significant word as well’. Bakhtin sees this quality as a
kind of dynamic and liberating influence which, as it were, conceptualizes reality, giving freedom to the individual character and subverting the type of ‘monologic’ discourse characteristic of many 19th c.novelists (including Tolstoy).
Dostoievski’s tale Bobok (1873) is a particularly good example of carnival. The dead, disencumbered of natural laws, can say what they like and speak the truth for fun. But Bakhtin does not pretend that an author is not still in control of his material while allowing his characters to be subversive. He acknowledges the role of the author as a directing agent.
Also read: Death of the Author by Roland Barthes