Narrative/thematic transition into "The Grand Inquisitor"
June 16, 2009 10:38 AM   Subscribe

Help me understand the transition in The Brothers Karamazov between "Rebellion" and "The Grand Inquisitor."

I am rereading the book once again, and this time the narrative shift between those chapters stood out. In "Rebellion," the major problems that Ivan raises are the problem of evil and the issue of original sin. But, Alyosha's response of invoking Jesus doesn't seem to address those problems: what Christ's sacrifice does for the innocent, tortured child is unclear to me (at least in the narrative context). Then, Ivan pivots to the problem of freedom in "The Grand Inquistor," and I don't understand how that story links up to the previous chapter except insofar as the character of Christ is mentioned.

I would appreciate any insights or suggestions for further reading to make sense of the narrative and thematic shifts in this section of the book.
posted by philosophygeek to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The best response, in my opinion, is to approach Karamazov as a largely disjointed work. I'm biased given that my background is in theology and not literary theory, but the chapters you discuss tend to be brandished a independent arguments quite frequently among theologians. Trying to link them from a literary standpoint is an exercise in futility without a working knowledge of the theological arguments in which the chapters are participating.
posted by jefficator at 11:12 AM on June 16, 2009

I'd agree with Jefficator. I think the book functions best when viewed as a series of philosophical arguments personified by the brothers' various wrestlings with the question of evil -- which is partially why The Grand Inquisitor almost functions as a separate novella. 

Overall, I see the novel as a partially successful attempt to render a philosophical or spiritual inquiry into novelistic form. In some ways, the book's plot is something of a foil to its philosophical element, and in this respect it's a fundamentally flawed piece of literature. Yet the failure of its ambitions don't undermine its literary or its philosophical value, which is why it's such a wonderfully vexing and intriguing work.

I have the impression Crime and Punishment is more tightly integrated (at least in this respect), but I haven't read it yet...
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 11:20 AM on June 16, 2009

Am I missing something? I thought the "innocent, tortured child" is intended as an allegory of Christ's sacrifice.

I can't say what the exact nexus is between that and The Grand Inquisitor . . . don't have my copy here.
posted by grobstein at 11:30 AM on June 16, 2009

I agree with jeffcator that BK makes leaps all over the place, but I'll take a stab anyway. Alyosha's response doesn't say that Christ's sacrifice helps the suffering child, but rather likens Christ TO the child whose blood upon which civilization has been built. If Christ, who suffered, can forgive his tormentors, then Christ can also forgive the people who accept G-d, even if G-d allows suffering. Essentially, Alyosha steps around Ivan's earlier claim that the mother (people of the world) should not forgive G-d even if her suffering child (Christ)does, and says that if the child forgives, then the mother 1) doesn't have to, and 2) has no reason not to.

The Grand Inquisitor is kind of a separate entity, but it does continue the theme of Christ as an embodiment of love and forgiveness, where he kisses the Grand Inquisitor in the end despite the guy being mean and a torturer and aligned with Satan.
posted by alygator at 11:42 AM on June 16, 2009

what Christ's sacrifice does for the innocent, tortured child is unclear to me (at least in the narrative context).

Alyosha believes that Christ can "forgive everything, forgive all and for all." And even Ivan sort of acknowledges that too, because he says, "I have a child-like conviction that the sufferings will be healed and smoothed over . . .in the moment of eternal harmony, there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all hearts, to allay all indignation, to redeem all human villainy, . . it will . . . justify everything that has happened with men." So even Ivan believes, sort of, that Christ can redeem the tortured child and her mother, and that Christ can smooth everything over. Ivan accepts God and even accepts that in the next world God will redeem everyone and everything. He says, "I myself will perhaps cry out with all the rest, looking at the mother embracing her child's tormentor: 'Just art thou, O Lord!'"

But Ivan does not accept God's world. He acknowledges that on judgment day he will witness God's redemption of Mankind. But even if he sees it before his own eyes (the parallel lines cross) he will not accept it. “It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.” He feels the suffering of mankind is too much: “if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price.”

I don't understand how that story links up to the previous chapter except insofar as the character of Christ is mentioned.

These passages are essential in the character development of the novel. The reason Ivan takes this philosophical position is because he is a "sensualist" and a Karamazov. Like the other Karamazovs, Ivan feels and loves too much. The only morality that matters to Ivan is that which happens in this immediate world. For his father and Dmitri, that often translates into drunkenness and debauchery. Ivan takes a moral approach. The only morality that matters to him is the suffering of people in this world. Like the Inquisitor, he loves Mankind too much. Because he feels the suffering of people (especially children) in this world so much, he rejects any redemption that could happen in the next world. Because as a "sensualist" the only thing that really matters is what you can feel in this world.

So Ivan sees himself as the Inquisitor. He does not reject God exactly, but he rejects God's world that has created so much suffering. The Grand Inquisitor is the ultimate parable in which the Inquisitor loves Mankind even more than he loves God.

But Ivan's flaw, like the Inquisitor's, is that he stubbornly holds on to his own suffering. Ivan probably doesn't really care about the kids that much, and the Inquisitor doesn't care that much for his people. What they both care about is their own suffering from living in this world, and they are too selfish to let it go. They don't want God to redeem their own suffering because in redeeming it He would seem to be taking away the most real thing for them. Both the Inquisitor and Ivan define themselves through their feelings and their sufferings and if God redeems the suffering of the world, he has erased their identities.

Ivan says, “I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and my unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong.”

Ivan pivots to the problem of freedom in "The Grand Inquistor,"and I don't understand how that story links up to the previous chapter except insofar as the character of Christ is mentioned.

By resisting temptation in the desert, God has given Ivan, and mankind, freedom. But this freedom has caused the suffering in this world. Instead of using this freedom to love God and choose faith, “they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.” Humanity cannot handle freedom and are willing to hand it over to anyone who can offer them a simple loaf of bread or the promise of community or universality.

“they wanted freedom . . .knowing that they would become unhappy.“ So the Inquisitor (and Ivan) are implicitly blaming Christ for the suffering in the world, because He resisted Satan’s temptation. This suffering of humanity, from Christ’s gift of freedom, has caused the Inquisitor to suffer. He, like Ivan, is the “one sufferer who is tormented by greatt sadness and loves mankind.”

The Christ in Ivan’s parable is stand-in for Alyosha. For Christ and for Alypsha there is no philosophical response to Ivan‘s argument. There is no way to logically rebut this (at least in this Euclidean world). So Christ responds by kissing the Inquisitor. This is a preview of Alyosha’s response. Instead of trying to explain how the parallel lines meet, or how one can build “the edifice of human destiny” on the torture of “one tiny creature,” Christ (and Alyosha) give Ivan a sign of eternal forgiveness and supreme love.

The true response to Ivan’s problem is found in Book 6. Alyosha counters Ivan’s philosophical and logical arguments with his own set of stories and parables. On the surface they do not seem to answer Ivan. But Alyosha is taking a completely different tact. Alyosha’s writing style itself is a direct answer to Ivan. Instead of using logic and wit and cleverness (The Grand Inquisitor), Alyosha uses faith and the absurd to answer the question of freedom and suffering. The life of Father Zossima is long, meandering, and seemingly pointless-- in stark contrast to the efficiency and literary wit of The Grand Inquisitor. But this style matches Zossima’s (and Alyosha’s) main idea: to “make yourself responsible for all the sins of men.” This is a totally illogical and absurd statement. But for Father Zossima (and Alyosha, and the Christ in The Grand Inquisitor even), it is the only way to come to terms with suffering and freedom in this world. This is in stark contrast to Ivan who claims that no one can be responsible. Instead, Alyosha claims everyone is responsible. These two ideas are played out throughout the novel, especially with Dmitri and Smerdyaok/Ivan. Who is responsible for the sins of man?

I could really write a lot more on this. But I don’t have the time. To sum up though, I do not agree that The Brothers Karamazov is “disjointed” or it is futile to analyze it as a literary work. These stories, while philosophically interesting in and of themselves, are actually essential for fully understanding the characters. Ivan’s personality come through in his Grand Inquisitor poem. He sees himself as the Grand Inquisitor, and like the Inquisitor he is trapped in his own suffering. Alyosha is a sensualist as well, but he expresses his Karamazovness through religion and faith. The structure of the novel seems erratic, but it all fits together if you look at it as a whole. If you look at the table of contents I think you can see an overall structure. I think you can see how some chapters posit a philosophical question, and other chapters attempt to answer them. This coincides with the characters reaching for something-- sometimes philosophical, emotional, existential-- and having their attempts thwarted and stunted. This all dovetails with the basic murder/mystery aspect of the plot.

I love this novel.

This was fun. Felt like I was in college again, thanks!
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 8:17 PM on June 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

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