Fyodor Dostoevsky: Modern (1821–1881)


The Grand Inquisitor

Ivan turned suddenly and went his way without looking back. It was just as Dmitri had left Alyosha the day before, though the parting had been very different. The strange resemblance flashed like an arrow through Alyosha’s mind in the distress and dejection of that moment. He waited a little, looking after his brother. He suddenly noticed that Ivan swayed as he walked and that his right shoulder looked lower than his left. He had never noticed it before. But all at once he turned too, and almost ran to the monastery. It was nearly dark, and he felt almost frightened; something new was growing up in him for which he could not account.

The wind had risen again as on the previous evening, and the ancient pines murmured gloomily about him when he entered the hermitage copse. He almost ran. “Pater Seraphicus—he got that name from somewhere—where from?” Alyosha wondered. “Ivan, poor Ivan, and when shall I see you again? . . . Here is the hermitage. Yes, yes, that he is, Pater Seraphicus, he will save me—from him and for ever!”

Several times afterwards he wondered how he could, on leaving Ivan, so completely forget his brother Dmitri, though he had that morning, only a few hours before, so firmly resolved to find him and not to give up doing so, even should he be unable to return to the monastery that night.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s final novel is considered his masterpiece.  The Brothers Karamazov is the story of Fyodor Karamazov and his sons Alyosha, Dmitry, and Ivan. It is also a story of its author for it draws on many biographical similarities.  Dostoyevsky introduces a love-hate struggle with profound psychological and spiritual implications and a search for faith and more specifically, for God persists throughout the novel.

John Mark Reynolds said this in his book, The Great Books Reader:

Younger readers of The Brothers Karamazov would have the chance to die in World War I, the influenza plague, the Russian Civil War, or Lenin’s police state.

Unlike Tolstoy, though, Dostoevsky avoided the more fatuous schemes for improving Russia. He understood the depths of the real problem, and he was more willing to consider radical, even revolutionary, ideas. The difference between the two great authors was that Dostoevsky knew the darkness at the heart of humanity; The Brothers Karamazov is an accurate picture of flawed but still hopeful human souls. He also knew that even a man as horrid as the Karamazov father was a soul created in God’s image.

Dostoevsky knew how to write a saintly character. He did so in his appropriately titled novel The Idiot, but none of the Karamazov characters are Christian enough for the rest to think them idiots. Even Alyosha, the most spiritual of the four brothers, is flawed and is as likely to end a demonic revolutionary as a great saint, if he does not grow.


Have you read The Brothers Karamazov?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.



John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.


D I G  D E E P E R

The Story Within the Story

John Granger

There is a select set of novels that marks anyone seen carrying them around as “serious” readers and thinkers. Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, and anything by James Joyce, but especially Finnegan’s Wake, are all the kind of books that young people on better college campuses carry “cover up and out” so everyone can see the title and understand that “here we have a student wrestling with real ideas and profound artistry.” Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, often cited as one of, even just the best novel ever written, is certainly in this elite group as well.

Which I think is unfortunate. This is a shame right off the top because folks who don’t self-identify as nerds or geeks are unlikely to pick up Brothers and give it a shot. It’s one of those books that if you do open it up and start, alas, much of the time you spend reading it you’re thinking to yourself self-consciously, “Gosh, I’m reading War and Peace” rather than really entering into the story.

The funny thing about this is that Brothers, compared to, say, Joyce’s Ulysses or Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, is not only readable, it’s downright engaging and entertaining. It’s a murder mystery, after all, and, if it isn’t quite as accessible or racy as a Mickey Spillane piece, it’s a lot closer to that standard than any of its peers on the “Greatest Ever” short shelf.


The reason that Brothers is at or very near the top of literary taxonomy’s hierarchy, then, isn’t difficult or magisterial language. A Russian friend told me once, when I volunteered the only reason I would learn his language would be to read Brothers, that I wouldn’t need to study very long: “Dostoevsky writes like a newspaper reporter.” What makes The Brothers Karamazov a book for everyone’s bucket list is that reading it is quite literally a transformative experience and we are better people, more human really, after the change.

I think about this masterwork the same way I look at other books I love and reread for greater appreciation. I look at the story’s obvious structure, reflect on the predominant symbolism, and hunt for some kind of “key” or “lens” the author imbedded into the book for a serious reader to use for opening up or looking within the surface narrative.

My assumption when reading a classic that resonates powerfully with readers across generations and gender, culture, creedal divides is that it is a Ring Composition. From the book of Genesis to The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter, the works that capture readers’ hearts have been written in a circle, that at the very least have a beginning, middle, and end that are joined. (See Mary Douglas, Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition [Yale University Press, 2007], for the ubiquity and qualities of this traditional and pervasive story structure.)

Sure enough, the epigraph, heart, and final scene of The Brothers Karamazov—John 12:24, the Life of Father Zossima, and Alyosha’s speech at the Stone—are all about the death of self and ego for the greater life in the inner heart, our shared life in Christ.

The predominant symbolism of Brothers is, as you’d guess, in the brothers: passionate Dmitri, coldly rational Ivan, and spiritual Alyosha. Like the three lead characters in the old Star Wars and older Star Trek; the three hobbits on Mount Doom; and Harry, Ron, and Hermione (the authors of which stories understand Dostoevsky’s genius), the trio in his spectacular murder mystery are a “soul triptych.”

They act, in effect, as allegorical transparencies for the three faculties or powers of the human soul as represented by Plato in his “Allegory of the Charioteer” in the Phaedrus: the desires, the will or reason, and the discerning spirit or heart. In the vernacular we’d say “body, mind, and spirit.”(See C. S. Lewis’s essay “Men Without Chests” [in Abolition of Man] for a longer discussion of this traditional faculty-psychology and triptych.) Dostoevsky gives us pictures of these soul-aspects in the Karamazov brothers as they act out their relationship to one another as well as to right and wrong.


The parable quality of the novel is easily overlooked because of the narrative’s realism, even grittiness. Brothers has the power it has, however, like its three-lead shadows in more recent books, films, and television, because the realism draws us into the story and, as we enter, we suspend our disbelief or critical skepticism. Our souls’ faculties then recognize, identify with, and experience the trials of their reflections in the Karamazov family drama. It’s an alchemical, transformative experience via imagination.

And the key or story lens through which the anagogical meaning is revealed is in the chapter excerpted above, “The Grand Inquisitor.” In it, Ivan tells Alyosha a parable of Christ and a Catholic cardinal—the Inquisitor of the title—in fifteenth-century Spain.

Their conversation in “Inquisitor” and Ivan’s story are not a stand-alone piece but the beginning of their relationship and a snapshot of their understanding of themselves, each other, and the world. Coming as it does before Alyosha’s crisis of faith and his temporary descents to passion and skepticism (of a sort) consequent to his elder’s demise and seeming disgrace, the chapter holds an important place in revealing Alyosha’s temptations and decisions in the next books of the novel, as well as Ivan’s eventual phrenesis and collapse. It’s not the whole play; it’s more of a prologue.

Sophisticated Ivan tells Alyosha a fable of his own invention about Christ having returned to earth in Spain at the height of the Catholic Inquisition’s executions of unrepentant heretics and infidels, which he dates in the fifteenth century. The people who meet the Son of God in the streets thrill to the miracles He performs—curing the blind, raising a child from the dead on the steps of the cathedral—but, before things get out of hand, the Grand Inquisitor arrests the Messiah and has Him jailed. He speaks that night to the silent Jesus, who never says a word, about how His return cannot be allowed because the people want mystery, miracle, and authority and will gladly exchange their free will, freedom, and conscience in exchange for the peace and happiness to be found in them. The Inquisitor promises to burn Christ at the stake the next day and pledges that those who cried “hosannah” will throw wood on the fire at his instruction.

After the Inquisitor reveals he lost his faith after years in the desert winning his spiritual freedom and realizing men were not equal to this challenge, the Christ responds with a silent kiss. The cardinal releases Him with the instruction never to come again. Ivan tells Alyosha that the “kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea.” The younger brother, convinced Ivan is telling him a parable of his own beliefs in the person of the Spanish cleric, confronts him with his atheism, and, to show his love for the lost soul, kisses him. Ivan accuses him of “plagiarism” which, no doubt, is true.

What’s going on here, and why should we care?

The Inquisitor’s parable is a key to the novel; as “story within a story,” the author is giving us a picture of novelist and reader, i.e., his idea of what he wants us to take away from The Brothers Karamazov. Alyosha, the inner heart of the Karamazov triptych and a stand-in for the book’s readers, naturally identifies with Christ, the Light of the World, in Ivan’s story. Ivan, the worldly rationalist and skeptic, is a story transparency for “reason”; if not Dostoevsky, he’s the sophisticated reader who identifies with his thoughts rather than heart.

In “Inquisitor,” then, we see the same message of death to self for the life in Christ that is in the book’s Ring signatures and the parabolic soul-faculty symbolism that is the work’s major allegorical structure. I hope on reading or rereading this signature chapter from Dostoevsky’s masterpiece that you feel as I always do, namely, invited to reenter this Christian literary crucible and experience again the agony of a dismembered soul and the joy of its final reorientation in Christ.

John Granger is a Christian literary critic most famous for his writing regarding the artistry and meaning of the Harry Potter novels. Dubbed “The Dean of Harry Potter Scholars” by Time magazine, Granger is a frequent guest speaker at academic and Harry Potter fan conferences, talk shows, and universities.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).

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Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life