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The Not-So-Grand Inquisitor

  • Jun 24, 2009
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"The Brothers Karamazov" nearly falls victim to its best chapter.

Not that it fails, by any stretch of the imagination; the novel is a true tour de force, 960 pages of literary excellence, a fascinating look at classic themes of anger, jealousy, debauchery, sin and redemption. It weaves together the story of four brothers (Dimitri, Ivan, Alyosha and Smerdyakov), their lovers, their father, and his murder. These characters and events make for a complex and fascinating story with more crime and punishment than "Crime and Punishment."

But "The Brothers Karamazov" isn't famous for its story.

No, it's famous for "The Grand Inquisitor," a 20-page existential exploration of the morality of church and state whose brilliance overpowers the rest of the narrative like a large diamond in the middle of a jewel-encrusted tiara.

This chapter sits outside the narrative and shows Ivan's musings to Alyosha about a fictitious meeting between Jesus and a church official leading the Spanish Inquisition. At first, it reads like a monologue, with Jesus saying nothing while the Inquisitor discourses on the ethics of religion and the church's role as a controller of men's consciences. As such, it's a damning indictment of organized religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular, perhaps the most devastating such critique ever set to paper. But it ends with all of these words and all of their cold, bitter cynicism being overpowered by a single act of love. In true fact, if not in the reader's mind, this gesture is a moment of warmth and beauty more lasting and permanent than the frigid torrent of invective that have preceded it.

Many readers, I feel, overestimate this admittedly excellent chapter and the Inquisitor's monologue; certainly on my first read, it made the greatest impression on my young Catholic mind. But, having read the book again after an eight-year-interlude, I've become fascinated by its role in the rest of the book and its relationship to the characters who created it. Ivan, its author, is Dostoevsky's embodiment of European intellectualism and atheism, and he is speaking to Alyosha, the author's personification of Russian simplicity and Christian faith. And at first glance, the latter character seems hopelessly outgunned by Ivan's intellectual artillery.

But the rest of the novel shows that this is not the case.

Alyosha, the book's hero, speaks through actions rather than words, showing that the true face of Christianity isn't its abstract intellectual constructs or its theoretical principles, but rather its physical actions on behalf of the dispossessed and the ostracized, society's losers, people deemed by man to be less important than everybody else, but chosen by God to be tests of man's goodness and faith. For his actions and his innate goodness, Alyosha earns his spot as the book's hero, the one character who emerges enriched, enlarged, and cleansed by the sordid events. It's an important message--intellect and cleverness aren't the keys to salvation, but kindness and goodness are; heaven is open to all, not just the winners with the high IQs.

As if this isn't enough, Ivan the intellectual ends up confronted (and perhaps maddened) by the consequences of his own beliefs. There's a counterpoint to "The Grand Inquisitor" later in the book, when Ivan encounters the devil in a fevered dream. Unfortulately, "Ivan's Nightmare and the Devil" is a slightly weaker chapter than the aforementioned one; there are some very lighthearted moments (at least, lighthearted by Dostoevsky's standards), and some very bizarre ones, so it doesn't quite leave the same impression on the reader, even though its importance is as great or greater.

At this point, Ivan has already learned from his father's murderer that "you taught me many things at the time...since there is no infinite God, there's no such thing as virtue either and there's no need for it at all." But the devil further demolishes Ivan's sense of self-importance. "My dear fellow, let me tell you--intelligence isn't everything," the devil says, and later goes on to discourse about a world in which "man will be exalted spiritually with a divine, titanic pride." In this world, "man will constantly experience such great joy that it will replace for him his former anticipation of the pleasures that await him in heaven."

On its own, this is compelling stuff; in the context of the book, it's even more fascinating, because Dostoevsky has elsewhere shown the self-destructiveness and nihilism inherent in man's search for "such great joy." Dimitri, the sensualist, pursues that goal and is nearly destroyed by it; rather than finding happiness, he ends up broke, brokenhearted, and on the verge of both murder and suicide. (Other readers have characterized him as being involved in a "love triangle," but the geometries of Dostoevsky's relationships aren't nearly so trite--this is more of a "love quadrilateral," or maybe even a "love pentagon.")

At any rate, the quest for instant gratification isn't the only spiritually destructive force at work in the novel. For Fyodor Karamazov's murderer isn't driven by rashness, but by resentment--his is the slow burn, not the fast flame. And this, not the Grand Inquisitor's musings, is the book's true central thesis. Dostoevsky may draw some complaints for its pacing, or for some of the overelaborate convolutions of plot or language, but all of that is insignificant, because he's exploring the very nature of evil here, and doing so in a truly compelling and original fashion.

And therein lies the irony of "The Brothers Karamazov." Intellectuals leap to praise "The Grand Inquisitor," but the rest of the book leads the reader in a completely different direction, away from intellect and cleverness, towards mysticism and humble Christianity, and finally (if one completes the journey and follows the book's ideas to their logical conclusion) to belief in God and an understanding of God's necessity. For as Dostoevsky makes clear, "when there is no God, all is permitted."

(This review was originally posted on Amazon.com on June 18th, 2005.)

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June 24, 2009
Thanks, that's a really great review, makes me want to drop everything and read it right now! Dostoevsky is undoubtedly talented, I also prefer The Brothers Karamazov to Crime and Punishment.
June 24, 2009
Wow! I will have to dust off my old paperback and read again. Thanks for sharing!
More The Brothers Karamazov (book) reviews
review by . August 27, 2012
   Early on in this wandering Russian sprawl of a novel, a family acquaintance and later antagonist boils down the "Karamazov problem" to "sensualists, money-grubbers, and saintly fools!"  For us modern American readers of an English translation, the Karamazov problem might be more succinctly stated as the lack of succinctness.   Dostoyevsky writes on and on and on, in the Penguin Classics paperback I read 900+ densely packed pages of pages-long paragraphs …
Quick Tip by . July 12, 2010
A very difficult read, but truly intriguing. Many psychological themes.
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Ranked #239
Alfonso Mangione has a Clark Kent job that involves managing data for a small telecommunications company.At night, he's been spottedswooping through the blogosphere at www.alfonsomangione.blogspot.com. … more
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About this book


The final novel by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, and is generally considered the culmination of his life's work. Dostoyevsky spent nearly two years writing The Brothers Karamazov, which was published as a serial in The Russian Messenger and completed in November 1880. Dostoyevsky intended it to be the first part in an epic story titled The Life of a Great Sinner, but he died less than four months after its publication.

The book portrays a patricide in which each of the murdered man's sons share varying degrees of complicity. On a deeper level, it is a spiritual drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, reason, free will and modern Russia. Dostoyevsky composed much of the novel in Staraya Russa, which is also the main setting of the novel.

Since its publication, it has been acclaimed all over the world by thinkers as diverse as Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein as one of the supreme achievements in literature.

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ISBN-10: 0374528373
ISBN-13: 978-0374528379
Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky
Genre: Novel
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Date Published: June 14, 2002
Format: paperback
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1984 (British first edition)

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