Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Russian Empire
Russia in the 1860s and 1870s was in a great upheaval. Its ruler, Tsar Alexander II, had negotiated the end of the Crimean War in 1856, ending four years of conflict between Russia and an alliance comprising England, France, Sardinia and Turkey. Russia, at the time one of the greatest powers in Europe, had wanted to seize control of the Balkans and other territory that had been controlled by Turkey, but had been stopped temporarily by Turkey and her allies. Although the war was over, the ‘‘Eastern Question’’ still loomed over the region, and Russia still wanted to acquire access to the Mediterranean Sea, and to expand the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. As part of the settlement that ended the Crimean War, Turkey agreed to enhanced tolerance for Christians within its borders.

In 1861, Alexander began a series of dramatic social reforms. Until that year, about one third of the population of Russia were serfs, or indentured servants who worked for a landowner. They were not slaves, but not entirely free either. Dostoevsky’s father had almost one hundred serfs attached to his country estate; they received accommodations and a share of the land’s yield in exchange for manual labor. Alexander issued the Emancipation Edict of 1861, abolishing the system of serfdom, freeing all the serfs, and requiring landowners to make land available for the serfs to purchase. Alexander also weakened his own power,...

(The entire section is 532 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when reading ‘‘The Grand Inquisitor’’ is that the long speech is spoken by a character in a novel. It should be obvious, but it is easy to forget, that this is not an argumentative essay by Dostoevsky, in which the ideas expressed can be traced directly back to the mind of the author. Rather, a fictional character named Ivan tells a story, and within that story another fictional character called the Grand Inquisitor says what he thinks about God and man. The fact that there are multiple levels of narration does not mean that the ideas expressed by the Grand Inquisitor are not Dostoevsky’s; it simply means that they need not be.

For the first several pages, the reader of the short story does not know who is speaking. The narrator states that God has come to Earth to visit ‘‘holy men, martyrs and hermits,’’ and quotes the Russian poet Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev (1803- 1873) as an authority who will verify that God has wandered through Russia. The narrator himself steps forward to add his own weight to the claim: ‘‘And that veritably was so, I assure you.’’ Still, the reader does not know who is speaking, or why a poet and an unnamed speaker should be accepted as authorities on the conduct of God.

A few times in the opening pages the narrator steps forward to address his audience and reveal his role as storyteller. ‘‘My story is laid in Spain,’’ he says as he begins the action. Several lines later he again refers to his own discourse. ‘‘Everyone recognised him. That might be one of the best passages in the poem. I mean, why they recognised him.’’ As it becomes increasingly clear, the speaker is not actually telling a story, but talking about a story that he has created, moving the narrator still another step further away from the reader and from Dostoevsky.

When Alyosha interrupts for the first time (‘‘I don’t understand, Ivan. What does it mean?’’), he clouds the issue of narration further. Who is quoting Alyosha’s questions and Ivan’s answers? There is another level of narration between Dostoevsky and Ivan, a narrator telling the story of Ivan telling the story of the Grand Inquisitor.

Ivan makes it clear that certain plot elements of his story are still negotiable. He does not care, for...

(The entire section is 966 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Sources Belknap, Robert L. ‘‘The Rhetoric of an Ideological Novel,’’ in Literature and Society in Imperial Russia, 1800-1914, edited by William Mills Todd III. Reprinted in Modern Critical Views: Fyodor Dostoevsky, edited by Harold Bloom.

New York: Chelsea House, 1989, pp. 136-37.

Berdyaev, Nicholas. Dostoevsky, translated by Donald Attwater, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1957, p. 189.

Catteau, Jacques. ‘‘The Paradox of the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov,’’ translated by Francoise Rosset, in Dostoevsky: New Perspectives, edited by Robert Louis Jackson, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall, 1984, p. 248.

Cowles, Virginia....

(The entire section is 480 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1870s: Dostoevsky is part of a political movement in Russia calling for the establishment of a great Greek Orthodox Empire with Russia as its leader and Constantinople as its capital. Non- Orthodox Christians, particularly Roman Catholics, were considered heretics.

1990s: After a serious decline during the middle of the twentieth century, the Russian Orthodox Church has regained its position as the most important of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Since 1962, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches have had free dialogue as equals. 1870s: Socialism in Europe and in Russia calls for the collective or government ownership and management of the means of production and distribution of goods. Dostoevsky believes that socialism is concerned with bread rather than with God.

1990s: Socialist parties are still influential in Western Europe, and still relatively unimportant in capitalist countries like the United States. In 1999, one member of the United States House of Representatives, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is a Socialist.

1880: The Friends of Russian Literature is divided between those who praise the poet Pushkin as a great Russian and European, and those who believe being Russian and being European are mutually exclusive. Dostoevsky gives a great speech declaring that Pushkin’s genius was in being able to use the best of other nations, and reunites Russia’s literary community.


(The entire section is 256 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Look at the story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness in either the Gospel of Luke (Luke 4:1-13) or the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 4:1- 11). Do you think the Grand Inquisitor is right in the way he interprets the significance of the temptations?

Find out what you can about the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, especially their beliefs about earthly authority. Explain why Dostoevsky, an ardent Russian Orthodox follower, might think that the Roman Catholic Church had joined forces with the devil.

Investigate socialism, especially as it was understood in Europe in the late nineteenth century. Find out what kinds of specific programs and policies socialists worked for. Do you agree that socialism is concerned only with the people’s material needs?

Read about the Spanish Inquisition. Why might Dostoevsky have chosen to set his confrontation between Jesus and a Church official in this time and place?

(The entire section is 151 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

‘‘The Grand Inquisitor’’ has not been recorded as a separate story. However, the entire novel from which it is taken, The Brothers Karamazov has been recorded as read by Walter Covell. The novel on tape runs 42 hours, and can be purchased from Books on Tape, Inc.

(The entire section is 46 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1879- 80) is the novel from which ‘‘The Grand Inquisitor’’ is taken. A man is murdered, probably by one of his four sons. As the crime is solved, the novel explores the political and intellectual ideas being debated in nineteenth-century Russia. Several fine English translations are available.

The Double (1846) is a short fantasy novel by Dostoevsky. When a poor civil servant is unable to win the hand of his employer’s daughter, his double mysteriously appears and succeeds where he has failed.

Dostoevsky, His Life and Work (1967) is a translation by Michael Minihan of Konstantin Mochulsky’s critical biography. A solid and insightful...

(The entire section is 211 words.)