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 example whether Alyosha believes that the man in the cell is really Jesus. He says, “If you like it to be a case of mistaken identity, let it be so…. Does it matter to us, after all, whether it was a mistake of identity or a wild fantasy?” For Ivan, the plot is just a structure, a reason for the Inquisitor to make his long speech: “All that matters is that the old man should speak out, should speak openly of what he has thought in silence for ninety years.”
Through the device of multiple levels of narration, Dostoevsky accomplishes two things: he puts extra emphasis on the Grand Inquisitor’s speech by demonstrating that the plot surrounding it is relatively unimportant, and he makes it clear that the speech is a piece of fiction created by a character. The reader’s charge, then, is not only to evaluate the wisdom of foolishness of the Inquisitor’s speech and Jesus’s response, but also to examine the mind of Ivan, who created them.
Connected with the issue of narration in “The Grand Inquisitor” is the issue of didacticism. A piece of writing is said to be didactic when its primary purpose is to instruct, especially about religious, moral, or ethical matters. Although writing that is openly instructional has always been able to find readers, modern critics have tended to look down upon this kind of writing when they have found that the message or lesson being delivered is stronger than the artistic quality of the work.
The long speech delivered by the Grand Inquisitor is openly and solidly didactic. To put it another way, when the Inquisitor gives Jesus the catalog of his complaints, he is concerned with what he is saying, not with how he is saying it. He speaks formally, and eloquently, as is appropriate to his station as a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, but his concern is with message, not with form. His speech is not intended to raise questions, but to cut them off, and give answers.
As creator of the Inquisitor’s speech, Ivan is somewhat didactic, but he is also concerned with form. He has created the story to help himself think through the issues of God and religion and free will, and although his character the Inquisitor speaks didactically, the fact of Jesus’s silent response raises the question: Is the Grand Inquisitor right? The story is able to raise the question only because Ivan has worked hard on form; although the story is a fantasy, he has created believable characters. The Grand Inquisitor’s focus is on his message, while Ivan’s focus is on his character who is delivering a message.
Dostoevsky is one step further back. His hope is that the reader will look at Ivan and wonder, not “Is the Grand Inquisitor right?” but “What kind of a man would make up a story like this?” “The Grand Inquisitor” is a useful story for coming to understand didacticism, because it presents shades or degrees of it. The Grand Inquisitor represents didacticism in the purest form, the form that critics have rejected most strenuously. Dostoevsky represents an ideal writer who writes artistic fiction that raises open-ended questions about important issues. Ivan represents the writer in the middle, who is perhaps so concerned with his message that it threatens to overpower his artistry.
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.