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LORILYN ROBERTS BOOK REVIEW: Analysis of “The Grand Inquisitor,” by Fydor Dostoevsky

Last updated on January 14, 2023

Analysis of The Grand Inquisitor

by Fydor Dostoevsky

Lorilyn Roberts

The Grand Inquisitor by Fydor Dostoevsky is a parable in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov. The story takes place in Seville, Spain, during the time of the Inquisition, when heretics were routinely burned at the stake. The first time I read The Grand Inquisitor, I found it disturbing. There had been, according to Dostoevsky, during the sixteenth century, chatter among the masses about the fact that Christ had not returned, and many questioned if His miracles were real.

According to the parable, Christ came back once again, briefly, and appeared quietly in the midst of the people, healing those who came to Him. The crowds recognized Him and clambered to be near Him. Christ healed the blind and the needy bowed down to Him. But Christ was too good, too powerful, and the guards came and took Him away. The Inquisitor came to The Prisoner and asked, “Why, then, art Thou come to hinder us?”

There followed a conversation between the Prisoner and the Inquisitor, which was disturbing. Christ’s thirty-three years on earth were distorted. The Inquisitor implied that Christ had failed at His mission; He didn’t set men free, for example; therefore, it fell on the church to set men free. According to the Inquisitor, freedom meant bondage. The Inquisitor believed that men couldn’t be free and that they needed to be told what to do, and the church saved the masses by forcing them to cower in submission.

The Inquisitor twisted the meaning of Christ’s three temptations in the wilderness; speaking as if he (the Inquisitor) was Satan incarnate, using twisted logic with a kernel of truth when carried to its logical conclusion.|

The parable encompassed more than a spiritual meaning and made a political statement; i.e., referencing the notorious conquerors of Timours and Ghenghis-Khan, who subdued men in the name of unity. The Inquisitor valued submission.

When one contemplates the ideology and the two choices presented in the parable—freedom versus bondage—and the Bolshevik Revolution that followed a few decades after Dostoevsky’s death, I wonder what Dostoevsky had in mind—who was The Grand Inquisitor? And surely he gave the Russian people more credit than what he opined. Did Dostoevsky not believe they could live in unity and freedom? Was the great experiment of American democracy in the 1800s not sufficient to persuade him?

Or was he prophetic? Did he believe the populace would be unable to handle the same freedom if given it? Or was he equating the Inquisitor simply with the time of the Great Inquisition and the depravity of mankind; that even if Christ had returned again, He would have been rejected? Did he accuse men after sixteen centuries of being just as wicked, concluding that Christ had failed once again? Could one surmise that the Inquisitor was Satan himself?

I read The Brothers Karamazov to understand the context in which the parable was written. The parable was told by Ivan, an intellectual, to his Christian mystic brother, Alyosha. Alyosha, in my opinion, was too weak but represented a moderating influence on the otherwise dark story that covered much of the book.

Toward the end of the parable, Alyosha stated to Ivan, “You don’t believe in God.” Those who don’t believe in God take the most loving aspects of Christ—His salvation and death on the cross—and belittle it. Perhaps Alyosha was comparing his brother to The Grand Inquisitor. Alyosha kissed his brother Ivan on the lips, reminiscent of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus with a kiss. But representing the opposite meaning—a feeble attempt at best.

Dostoevsky referenced the Masons in a less than glamorous way, accusing them of possessing the same mystery, perhaps in conflict with the Catholics’ pursuit of unity.

Dostoyevsky raised more questions than he answered. I felt a sense of hopelessness in the parable. Perhaps if Alyosha was more assertive and less passive, he could have countered the progressive mindset of Ivan—who attempted to intellectually provide answers to questions that did not require belief in a higher being.  Ivan’s tone was overreaching and intolerant. The two brothers represented types‑‑the intellectual versus the mystic (I will include the third brother when I analyze the entire book).

The parable provides no easy answers to the accusations of The Grand Inquisitor. Did Dostoevsky have an answer? Perhaps that’s the point—to give the reader the freedom to ponder, unlike the accusations of The Grand Inquisitor, who didn’t give people enough credit to even do that.

Perspective is everything. Having had more time to consider the book, The Brothers Karamazov, I wonder if my early thoughts were flawed. Upon further reflection, I don’t believe Alyosha was weak. He was humble. His responses were much like Jesus’ response to those who criticized Him. He never lashed back, except at the money changers. And perhaps Dostoevsky was making a broader statement about life. Communism followed in Russia shortly after his death. Is that what will happen here in America? Do people really want to think for themselves, or would they rather have the government or some other entity tell them what to do?

If you cherish your freedom, don’t be like the masses who expect the government to take care of them. Don’t take that government handout. Don’t expect the government to do for you what you can do for yourself.

God gave us freedom in Christ. He knew there would always be tyrannical governments, like the Romans, Alexander the Great, and Hitler. If each person takes a leap of faith, trusts God, and becomes his brother’s keeper, we can prevent our country from going the way of others.

As my mother says, our country is going to hell in a handbasket. Little by little, The Grand Inquisitor will have his way in America because, as a nation, we have turned our eyes away from God. And because God is love, He has given us the freedom to be conquered—and I ask, what or who will conquer us?

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Published inClassical BooksLorilyn's Book Reviews


  1. Anonymous Anonymous

    Please read the rest of the book.

    Existential writings seem to be a little bit beyond you. The purpose of the chapter is to present the question of the apparent incompatibility of freedom and universal happiness and whether it is desirable to give up that freedom. You'll find many issues and answers resolved in the Zosima's speech.

    The ideas aren't supposed to be easily reconciled by right or wrong answers and you using the supposed shining example of American democracy as counterpoint is a little bit weak. It is necessary for the government to put regulations on certain capitalistic freedoms to insure that inherent avarice doesn't collapse our system. In very subtle ways, many of which you may not take issue with, we are sacrificing our free will for bliss, we turning our stone to bread, etc.

  2. Anonymous Anonymous

    You should also see the viewpoint in which Dostoevsky is viewing that "Great American Experiment." They just recently finished fighting their civil war, a dispute in which the questions in the Grand Inquisitor are asked, is it up to some higher organization to enforce what should be morality?

    I mean owning a slave is morally reprehensible right? But why should a federal government take away a state's freedom to follow that edict.

    If we take away the south's ability to choose right from wrong are we not dooming them to hell?

  3. Lorilyn Roberts Lorilyn Roberts

    Thank you for your comments. I actually did read the entire 1000-page book and will be adding a follow-up to this post with my thoughts on it.

    My professor was delighted with my final analysis of the Brothers Karamazov. I hope you will come back and comment on that also.

  4. Anonymous Anonymous

    And lastly, one more comment.

    Alyosha is characterized as weak because he kind of is at the early stages of the novel. He is a childlike monastic mystic following the scriptures because that's what he knows. He can't really give answers to those tough questions because he doesn't have that sagacious wisdom as someone like Father Zosima.

    Over the course of the novel you'll see him mature and you'll see him tested but by the end of the novel you see his love and faith endure stronger than ever because of the conflicts that arise in the novel. By the end he'll have his own answers the the burning questions that the novel raises while Ivan's perceptions are left incredibly shaken.

  5. Lorilyn Roberts Lorilyn Roberts

    I agree. I will post my thoughts on the novel later today. Thanks for your insights. It's been difficult to get people to engage me in conversation because it's so deep.I wanted others' thoughts to help me to understand some of the nuances which were unclear to me.

  6. p.satay p.satay

    Hi Lorilyn, I believe that the story of the fall (Genesis) teaches that for mankind, the ideal of free will is a limited one. That is why the tree of knowledge was relatively BAD. Me thinks tt the problem was that Adam and Eve (A&E) were too young to digest the full meaning of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the consequence of their consuming it would be poisoning (death)- but by grace, the almighty God assisted A&E into finding another outcome to the problem that they had begotten themselves into.

    So whilst free will DOES exist in Christianity, it is subservient to faith in that Almighty God. It is sad I feel that both Christians and non-christians do not seem to grasp this teaching which I feel is the message of Genesis; consequently, everyone believes in the story that Fyodor Dostoevsky paints- he simply uses extremes (straw men) and then demolishes them in a hypothetical story about Jesus reappearing which is quite un Christian in the first place I believe (Jesus pre crucification and post might be slightly different manifestations of God I believe).

    That's all for now, n I believe that Jesus is real, BUT no where near the description that Fyodor Dostoevsky (who is mistaken) describes him as.

  7. outside the matrix outside the matrix

    Dostoyevsky was epileptic. I believe the Grand Inquisitor was the result of a vision he had while having a seizure (or maybe he just had a vision). What he is talking about here in my opinion is that Christianity was taken over by a predatory energetic being (call it Satan or the Adversary) as a way of controlling humanity. The Grand Inq. is a cardinal AND a satanic being — is burning heretics something Christ would do? The 3 temptations of Christ were the predator's attempt to co-opt Christ. Certainly the crucifixion sends a very mixed message about Christ as does the entire Christian religion which is rife with contradiction.

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Lorilyn Roberts