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Literature Study GuidesThe Brothers KaramazovPart 2 Book 5 Chapter 5 Summary

The Brothers Karamazov | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Brothers Karamazov | Part 2, Book 5, Chapter 5 : Pro and Contra | Summary



Ivan begins his story of the Grand Inquisitor, which takes place in Seville, Spain, at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, in which heretics were being tortured and burned at the stake to uphold Roman Catholic orthodoxy. Jesus once again comes to Earth and begins by walking around the city, where people immediately flock to him, even asking for healing. Jesus is spotted by the 90-year-old cardinal (a priest of the highest order) who promptly has him arrested and thrown into jail. He plans to burn Jesus the next day, but he cannot resist going into his cell to tell him why.

The Grand Inquisitor says Jesus handed everything over to the pope and has no right to come back now and interfere. Jesus himself refused to be tempted by the devil for material comfort, safety, or power. While Jesus and the elect are strong enough to choose freedom and salvation over security and temporal comfort, most people are not that hardy. Therefore, it was cruel for Jesus to offer freedom. The church has aligned itself with Satan, the Inquisitor says, replacing freedom with obedience to Rome. In return for their freedom, the people receive all those things Jesus rejected through the mechanisms of miracle, mystery, and authority offered by the church, but in a petty, small way. The Grand Inquisitor opines that Jesus does not love the people. Rather, the Inquisitor and the devil love the people because they do not expect them to be strong enough to endure freedom. When the Inquisitor finishes, Jesus gets up and kisses him, and as a result, he lets Jesus go but tells him never to come back again.

Alyosha is upset by his brother's story, asking him how he can live with such a hell in his heart. Ivan responds that he will do it with Karamazov baseness, at least until his 30th year. His brother then asks him if he means "everything is permitted," as he said earlier. Ivan will not renounce his statement and invites his brother to renounce him, but Alyosha instead gets up and kisses him. This pleases Ivan, and when the brothers part, Alyosha completely forgets about Dmitri and returns to the monastery.


Ivan creates a religious tale in the genre of an apocryphal legend to show that Jesus was ultimately ineffective as a savior, because he could save only the few who are strong. It remained for the church and the devil to save the majority. On the surface, the Grand Inquisitor is an indictment of Roman Catholicism and the "ultramontanism" described by Miusov in Zosima's cell. Miusov mentions in that conversation the most dangerous philosophy of all is Christianity united with socialism. Thus, the meaning of "The Grand Inquisitor" is much wider.

Dostoevsky is juxtaposing a morality that is freely chosen and derived from God-given free will with a secular behavior code that keeps people's worst impulses in check. For the good of humanity—to avoid the suffering of the children—humans exchange their freedom for totalitarianism, which will prevent them from doing too much damage. People have their material needs taken care of, comfort in belonging to a universal brotherhood, and freedom from conscience. The state has already decided how they need to behave, and the Grand Inquisitor even allows them minor transgressions.

The Grand Inquisitor argues that people are not interested in the freedom to choose a righteous path that leads to salvation. They are not strong enough to choose the good over the expedient. They are not smart enough to grasp the teachings of Christ and see that they provide a balm to existential suffering. Ivan rejects those teachings, because they leave room for the possibility of the suffering of the children. Ivan rejects God because he gave man free will, and in so doing, allowed evil to enter the world.

Ivan's insistence to remain as he is until the age of 30 is doubly significant. First, if anyone has the strength to exert a free will in the interest of the good, it is a Karamazov. The power of their family line is regularly asserted in the novel, a power that could presumably be used for good as well as evil, provided free will exists at all. Ivan could just as easily choose to live a life of extreme goodness as one of moral turpitude. Second, Jesus was 30 when he began his ministry, begging the question what will happen to Ivan at that age.

Alyosha demonstrates Ivan's options by replying to his hellish tale with active love and Christ-like compassion and forgiveness, the only solution to suffering. In these chapters, Ivan becomes the double of the Grand Inquisitor and the devil, and Alyosha that of Zosima and Christ.

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