The Grand Inquisitor

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416

Alyosha
Alyosha listens to Ivan reciting the legend of the Grand Inquisitor, and twice interrupts the narrative to ask questions. He speaks only eight sentences in the story—all questions—but gives Ivan and Dostoevsky opportunities to explain and interpret for the reader.

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The Grand Inquisitor
The Grand Inquisitor, a ninety-year-old cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church during the sixteenth- century Spanish Inquisition in Seville, Spain, speaks most of the lines in the story. He is among the crowd of people to whom Jesus appears, and he sees Jesus raise a child from the dead. But the Grand Inquisitor’s own influence is so great that when he makes his presence known to the crowd, they bow before him rather than to Jesus. The Inquisitor has Jesus arrested, and comes to visit him in his cell, where he delivers the long monologue of condemnation that makes up most of the story. His speech is dense, with long complex sentences and ideas, and he uses language that is formal and old-fashioned. When he finishes his diatribe, and receives only a kiss from Jesus in return, he is flustered. He does nothing in reply except release his prisoner.

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Latest answer posted February 20, 2012, 1:34 pm (UTC)

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Ivan
Ivan is the supposed author of the legend of the Grand Inquisitor, a story in poem form that he is reciting to Alyosha. When Alyosha occasionally breaks into the narration to ask questions, Ivan gives vague answers. He tells his brother that the meaning of the Grand Inquisitor’s words is less important than the fact of them, and invites Alyosha to interpret them any way he can. He does comment that ‘‘the most fundamental feature of Roman Catholicism’’ is its static quality, its refusal to adapt and grow. In the novel The Brothers Karamazov and in some versions of the short story, Ivan introduces his legend at some length, and comments on it afterward.

Jesus
Jesus does not speak at all throughout the story. He appears on Earth for reasons that are never explained. He moves through an adoring crowd, raises a dead child, and then is arrested by the Grand Inquisitor. He sits silently through the Grand Inquisitor’s long speech, making eye contact and listening intently but not replying. When the speech is over, Jesus goes to his accuser and kisses him on the lips. The Grand Inquisitor opens the cell door and lets him out. Jesus goes away.

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