‘‘The Grand Inquisitor’’ was originally published as the fifth chapter of the fifth book of Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, his last and perhaps his greatest work. Dostoevsky died just months after the novel was published, and he did not live to see the peculiar situation of his novel’s most famous chapter being excerpted as a short story—something he did not intend. A further peculiarity arises from the fact that the story is not excerpted the same way every time, so that whole paragraphs of the novel may be included or excluded from the short story, according to each editor’s sense of how best to make the part seem like a whole.
The legend of the Grand Inquisitor is a story within a story. Jesus returns to Earth during the Spanish Inquisition and is arrested. The Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell to tell him that he is no longer needed on Earth. The Church, which is now allied with the Devil, is better able than Jesus to give people what they need. The story has often been considered a statement of Dostoevsky’s own doubts, which he wrestled with throughout his life.
Throughout the novel the themes of the legend are repeated and echoed by other characters and in other situations. Ivan explains some of what is to come before he tells the story, and he and Alyosha discuss the story when he is finished telling it. In the excerpted form, it is more difficult for readers to determine who is speaking, whose story it is, and how it is to be taken.
‘‘The Grand Inquisitor’’ begins with a set of opening quotation marks. An unidentified speaker says, ‘‘Fifteen centuries have passed since He promised to come in His glory, fifteen centuries since His prophet wrote, ‘Behold, I come quickly.’’’ The uppercase ‘‘H’’ in the word ‘‘He’’ is used conventionally to indicate that ‘‘He’’ is the Christian God; in this case it is Jesus Christ, as is made clear later in the sentence when the speaker refers to the ‘‘Son’’ and the ‘‘Father.’’ The story, then, takes place fifteen centuries after Jesus walked on Earth. In the intervening time, according to the speaker, there was a period of great faith and miracles, and then a period in which people began to doubt the miracles and doubt their faith.
Some time in the sixteenth century, in Seville, Spain, Jesus returns to Earth. He arrives during the Spanish Inquisition, a time from 1478 until 1834 when, under the orders of the Roman Catholic Spanish monarchs, Jews and Muslims who had forcibly been converted to Christianity were questioned and, in many cases, sentenced to death for insincerity. The day before Jesus’s appearance, almost one hundred had been rounded up, and ‘‘in the splendid auto-da-fe the wicked heretics were burnt.’’ Autos-da-fe (literally, ‘‘acts of the faith’’) were carried out by the non-religious authorities of Spain after a religious authority had pronounced a sentence. In this case, the victims had been sentenced by ‘‘the cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor,’’ and killed ‘‘in the presence of the king, the court, the knights, the cardinals, the most charming ladies of the court, and the whole population of Seville.’’
When Jesus appears, he is recognized immediately by the people, although he makes no demonstration other than ‘‘a gentle smile of infinite compassion.’’ He passes through the crowd blessing and healing people, and raises a child from the dead. When the Grand Inquisitor sees how the people love and follow him, he has Jesus arrested and led away. The crowd makes no protest, but ‘‘bows down to the earth, like one man, before the old inquisitor.’’ Jesus is thrown into a dark prison. That night, the Grand Inquisitor comes to ask him why he has come back, announcing that he will have Jesus burned at the stake ‘‘as the worst of heretics.’’
Up to this point in the story, the speaker has not been identified. Suddenly the narrative is interrupted....
(The entire section is 1,208 words.)