‘‘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. ‘‘‘I don’t quite understand, Ivan. What does it mean?’ Alyosha, who had been listening in silence, said with a smile.’’ Ivan and Alyosha are not introduced; readers of the novel would already know who they are, but readers of the short story are never told. Ivan, apparently the speaker, explains that it is irrelevant whether it is actually Jesus or not. What concerns him is the cardinal’s speech, and his insistence that Jesus has no right to ‘‘add to what has been said of old’’ with any new works or words. Ivan’s point is that the Roman Catholic Church has its power consolidated as things are. With the Pope in place as Jesus’s representative on Earth, Jesus himself is irrelevant.
Nearly all the rest of the story is a long monologue by the Grand Inquisitor, while Jesus makes no reply. He explains that the Pope and the Church have assumed responsibility for the freedom of the people; the people believe they are free, but they are actually slaves to the Church. This is to the people’s benefit, because they could never be happy if they truly had free will. Jesus should have known this. He should have learned it when he was tempted...
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The Gospels of Luke and Matthew tell the story of Jesus’s temptation in the desert. As he wandered in the wilderness, Satan tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread, to perform a miracle to prove his divinity, and to look to earthly authority. Jesus refused each request. Referring to this incident, the Grand Inquisitor argues that in the temptation the entire nature and history of mankind was foretold. Jesus’s mistake was in choosing badly. Satan urged Jesus to use his power to turn stones into bread to feed his people. Jesus made the famous reply, ‘‘Man does not live by bread alone.’’ He chose to turn people’s attention to God instead of to material things, to heavenly bread instead of to earthly bread. The Grand Inquisitor says that this was a mistake, because hungry people have no free will. The Church has been able to control people by feeding them. If Jesus had worked this great miracle, the people’s faith would not have wavered.
The Church offers people security and mystery, which is what all people crave. Most people are too weak to find salvation through faith alone, so they have turned away from Jesus and given their loyalty to the Church. The Church, in alliance with the Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky devil, has power and strength so long as it can keep the people in slavery. Jesus’s coming again threatens to interrupt their power-building, and so Jesus must be burned at the stake. Actually, says the Grand Inquisitor, their way makes more people happy, since only the strong could be saved Jesus’s way.
When the cardinal stops speaking, he waits for Jesus to reply, eager to answer Jesus’s angry objections. Jesus says nothing, but approaches him and softly kisses him on the lips. The Grand Inquisitor shudders, then opens the cell door and says, ‘‘Go, and come no more ... come not at all, never, never!’’ He leads Jesus out into the alley, and Jesus walks away.