The central conflict in “The Grand Inquisitor” is between the Inquisitor himself and his prisoner, Jesus. On the surface, it is a one-sided battle. The Inquisitor does literally all the talking, making accusation after accusation while Jesus refuses to defend himself. Perhaps “refuses” is the wrong word, for it implies a level of engagement that does not seem to be there. Jesus does not refuse to speak in his own defense; he simply does not do so. He sits in silence, he listens intently; no one says the Grand Inquisitor refuses to be silent. The two “speak” different languages, one of talk and one of action, one of thinking and one of knowing.
As Jesus walks on earth he encounters many who speak the Inquisitor’s language, but he will not speak it. The contrast from the moment he appears is sharp. Jesus comes softly: “He moves silently in their midst with a gentle smile of infinite compassion. The sun of love burns in his heart, light and power shine from his eyes, and their radiance, shed on the people, stirs their hearts with responsive love. He holds out His hands to them, blesses them, and a healing virtue comes from contact with him, even with His garments.” The people around him do not move softly, but remarkably loudly. They “sing and cry hosannah,” “the crowd shouts,” “the mother of the dead child throws herself at His feet with a wail” before she “cries” out. Jesus responds by uttering the only words he speaks in the entire story: “He looks with compassion, and His lips once more softly pronounce, ‘Maiden, arise!'”
How seemingly alike and yet how different when the Grand Inquisitor arrives on the scene. He too is silent, and he too gets a strong reaction from the crowd. He merely “holds out his finger and bids the guard take him. And such is his power, so completely are the people cowed into submission and trembling obedience to him, that … in the midst of deathlike silence they lay hands on Him and lead Him away. The crowd instantly bows down to the earth … before the old inquisitor. He blesses the people in silence and passes on.” Both Jesus and the Inquisitor move among the people and bless them in silence. But only Jesus’s presence “stirs their hearts with responsive love”; only his blessing yields “a healing virtue.”
Of course, there is no great insight in concluding that Jesus is divine and the Inquisitor is not. The tension that I find interesting is in the uses both make of silence and speech. Jesus is a man of action. He does not ask the people for anything, he does not tell them anything, he simply walks among them smiling and touching. Is this all he has come for? Yes. He has come to demonstrate Christianity as a robust, active faith, not as an issue for logical debate. His only words, “Maiden, arise,” are the words that are the action, that work the miracle.
Although like the crowd he cannot help talking to Jesus himself, the Inquisitor at first welcomes Jesus’s silence: “Don’t answer, be silent. What canst Thou say, indeed? I know too well what Thou wouldst say. And Thou has no right to add anything to what Thou hast said of old.” The Inquisitor comes back to this point again, insisting that Jesus has no right to speak. It is an odd thing to insist, as Ivan points out, especially since Jesus shows no sign of wishing to say anything. It is the technique of a debater, and perhaps one who is not sure he is right.
After a while, Jesus begins to make the Inquisitor nervous. He interrupts his long monologue three times to draw attention to Jesus’s silence. “Were we right teaching them this? Speak!” But Jesus does not reply. “And why dost Thou look silently and searchingly at me with Thy mild eyes? Be angry.” Again, no response. “Who is most to blame for their not knowing [the value of complete submission]? Speak!” Nothing. Within his speech the Inquisitor has already anticipated Jesus’ s reply which is no reply. He reminded Jesus that he did not “come down from the Cross when they shouted to Thee, mocking and reviling thee.” As the Inquisitor knows, Jesus does not respond to verbal bullying. The Inquisitor also knows that he is not persuading his audience, he knows he is only trying to convince himself, but he cannot stop talking. With the crowd, with his inferiors, he can use silence as a tool of power, but with Jesus he is as weak and babbling as those he despises. There is no sense throughout the monologue that Jesus is cowering. Clearly his silence is a sign of power.
The word “babbling” is appropriate here, because it echoes a favorite image of the Inquisitor’s: the tower of Babel. The Old Testament book of Genesis tells the story of Noah’s descendants, who wandered until they came to Babylonia. Skilled at brickwork, they set to building a great tower, the highest structure ever made. God saw this structure as a sign of arrogance, and to punish the people he created the different languages so that the people could no longer speak to each other, thus preventing the completion of the tower. The Grand Inquisitor states that men need structures, and that they cannot help but create chaos and confusion. He does not understand why Jesus did not step in when he might “have prevented that new tower and have cut short the sufferings of men for a thousand years.”
“By their fruits ye shall know them,” says Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, and the fruit of the Grand Inquisitor is speech. Even the name by which he is known, “Inquisitor,” means one who inquires, one who asks questions and gets answers and hopes to find the truth in the words. Dostoevsky chose the Spanish Inquisition for his setting because the Inquisition demonstrates most clearly how language and speech can be used wrongly to serve the Faith. It is not simply that the Grand Inquisitor is saying the wrong things; the fact that he relies on argument at all in the presence of his Lord is a sign that he does not understand what faith is.
This is what Ivan means when he says that it does not matter whether the Inquisitor was truly speaking to Jesus or not. The Inquisitor reveals himself by the fact of speaking, of thinking that rationality and argumentative speech are the ways to reach God. Ivan says, “All that matters is that the old man should speak out, should speak openly of what he has thought in silence for ninety years.” The content of his speech is not important. “All that matters is that the old man should speak out.”
Nicholas Berdyaev, who claims that Dostoevsky “has played a decisive part” in his spiritual life, points to the importance of Jesus’s silence in his 1957 book : “Christ is a shadowy figure who says nothing all the time; efficacious religion does not explain itself, the principles of freedom cannot be expressed in words; but the principle of compulsion puts its case very freely indeed. In the end, truth springs from the contradictions in the ideas of the Grand Inquisitor, it stands out clearly among all the considerations that he marshals against it. He argues and persuades; he is a master of logic and he is single-mindedly set on the carrying-out of a definite plan; but our Lord’s silence is stronger and more convincing.”
The Grand Inquisitor demands silence from his subjects, and they comply. But God does not want his people to be “cowed into submission and trembling obedience.” Jesus asks his people to give up speech and logic because they do not need it, because he wants them to have real faith, not because they should not dare to speak. Jesus is silent before the Grand Inquisitor, but it is not a silence born of fear like the crowd’s silence, and the Inquisitor knows it. The message of Jesus is beyond and above language: believe. Don’t talk about it, don’t reason it out logically. Words can fail you; they can deceive you. Have faith.
When the Grand Inquisitor runs out of words, he is desperate for Jesus to reply, but “his silence weighed down upon him. He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently in his face, evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for Him to say something, however bitter and terrible.” He still wants Jesus to argue, to be angry. It is the only language he knows. But Jesus stays silent, the man of action not of speech. He stands and delivers that soft kiss, and earns an emotional, human response from the Inquisitor: the old man shudders. His long monologue has not affected Jesus at all, but he has been touched by the simple gesture.
The Grand Inquisitor condemns Jesus because he has not provided “miracle, mystery and authority,” the three things people need in order to believe. But in fact Jesus has shown all three to the Inquisitor himself: miracle in raising the child from the dead, mystery in his silence which the Inquisitor cannot understand, and authority in kissing his accuser and walking away. By his speech and his inability to control it, the Inquisitor demonstrates that he is less than God, and that he does not have faith in God. By his control of speech, by his using it only to save the girl and not to condescend to argue with the Inquisitor, Jesus demonstrates his divine power and authority.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.
Cynthia Bily, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000