Great Books: The Brothers Karamazov

Easily the greatest work of Christian existential literature, Dostoyevsky sets the stage for the next 300 years of conversation on the necessity of God for value, meaning, and purpose in life.

My quick recommendation on how to read it: The story is so compelling, most translations will get you hooked. McDuff’s translation is great, as well as Luke Thompson’s (no relation) audiobook version of the McDuff translation. Do not read while listening to Tchaikovsky. Try instead Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, or Prokofiev.

Book Club Resources ↗

Get a virtual tour of the museum. Ideal for schools and events.

Christine’s Commentary ↗

Christine introduces us to Dostoyevsky’s famous Grand Inquisitor, his treatment of the problem of evil, and his answer to the problem: Father Zosima.

Book Club Resources

The Great Books should not only be read, but discussed. In fact, I’m convinced that the only way to unleash a Great Book’s potential is through discussing the book.

Dostoyevsky broke The Brothers Karamazov into five parts. I would suggest book clubs meet five times, about once a month, one meeting per part. Below is a link to handouts I prepared for these three meetings. Handouts are useful for book club meetings particularly to place very specific questions before the club, as well as extended quotes worth meditating on. For this book, I had a short list of four questions to be thinking about throughout the entire reading, since certain themes, like the Problem of Evil, develop throughout the entire novel. Enjoy.

Christine’s Commentary

If there is a good and all-powerful God, how can evil exist?

In all of his major works, the great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, is known for “his ability not only to depict characters with a scrupulous social and psychological realism but also to link their conflicts and dilemmas with an exploration of the ultimate problems of human existence.” 1 Such problems haunt the pages of The Brothers Karamazov. In it, the passionate Dmitry, the intelligent Ivan, and the soulful Aloysha probe for the meaning of life, an answer to the problem of evil, and even God himself. Russian poet Vyacheslav Ivanov hauntingly describes these characters’ search, “From the fog in the streets they arise before us; in dark and sleepless nights they knock at our doors, frequent our bedsides and in confidential whispers engage us in many disquieting conversation.” 2

The problem of evil haunted Dostoevsky. His publication, “A Writer’s Diary,” is filled with horrific true stories of the suffering of children and peasants. 3 Ivan relates some of these same stories to Aloysha to justify his atheism. 4 In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky puts forward two opposing answers to this problem. The first response is Ivan’s “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor;“ the second reply comes in the life and teaching’s of Aloysha’s elder, Father Zosima. 5 Though this novel has a multiplicity of themes, Dostoevsky writes that Father Zosima’s reply to the Grand Inquisitor is “the culminating point” of the work; “the whole novel is written for its sake.” 6

“The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor”

According to legend, Christ returns to earth in the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor treats Christ as a heretic to be burned at the stake. To defend this action, The Inquisitor inverts the devil’s three temptations of Christ into an apology for world domination. He explains that for humanity to put their faith in anything, they need to be given “miracle, mystery, and authority”—they need their earthly needs satisfied, an icon that all can worship, and miracles. Yet, Christ offers only himself and the free will to choose him. This, the Inquisitor states, is asking too much for “man is weaker and baser by nature than Thou hast believed him.” Therefore, the Inquisitor states, Christ does not really offer salvation to all, but only to the few who can choose. The Inquisitor calls this freedom of the will, a “fearful burden.” one that humanity does not want. Instead, they want someone to lead them “like sheep.” The Inquisitor says the church has taken this mighty task; they have rejected Christ and are now working alongside the devil to create a universal power that allures its sheep with “the reward of heaven and eternity.” Only the powerful will suffer with the knowledge of good and evil, the knowledge that God and immortality are fabrications. But, the weak “will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves.” In response to this confession, Christ offers a kiss. 7

Ivan’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” is an apology for atheism that has been labeled as “one of the most eloquent and convincing arguments in all literature.” 8 It is so convincing that many have interpreted it to imply that Dostoevsky, a vehemently outspoken Russian Orthodox nationalist, 9 rejected his Christian beliefs. 10 This view is verbalized in the words of writer, D. H. Lawrence, who states that “the Inquisitor speaks Dostoevsky’s own final opinion about Jesus. The opinion is, baldly, this: Jesus, you are inadequate. Men must correct you. And Jesus gives the kiss of acquiescence to the Inquisitor, as Alyosha does to Ivan.” 11

Ivan and The Grand Inquisitor are not Dostoyevsky’s first nihilistic characters or “anti-heroes.” Throughout Dostoevsky’s works, he creates “representations of terrifying nihilistic views of the world,“ while passionately exclaiming, in his daily life, that he was a defender of the Orthodox faith. What makes The Brothers Karamazov stand apart from his other works is that in it, “Dostoevsky grants the ‘other side’ more than he had ever granted them before.” 12 Dostoevsky himself exclaims Russia’s socialists “are conscious Jesuits and liars who do not admit that their ideal is the ideal of coercing human consciousness and reducing humanity to a herd of cattle, while my socialist (Ivan Karamazov) is a sincere man.” 13 One scholar’s conclusion is that Dostoevsky was able to sketch such a sincere character because he struggled with Ivan’s disbelief. 14 Others agree, arguing that Dostoevsky’s “mind was with the reasoning of Ivan, his heart with the precepts of Zosima.” 15

The Life and Teachings of Father Zosima

Father Zosima’s response to the problem of evil is not an in-depth philosophical argument. For Zosima, it is not a problem to be attacked through the intellect; instead, it is one that must be seen in action. Zosima’s main teaching is the importance of love. One is to “love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth.” Just as Christ shows mercy to the Grand Inquisitor through a kiss, so too his followers are to be merciful–loving without restriction. As Zosima states, “No one can judge a criminal until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him.” For Zosima, hell is not a material reality, it is “the suffering of being unable to love,” unable to “give my life for others.” 16

It is Zosima’s life of love that is juxtaposed against Ivan’s sneering Grand Inquisitor: one offers to share in the suffering, the other to dismiss it with a grand opiate. Dostoevsky intended “The Russian Monk” as an active response to Ivan’s challenge. Yet, in a following letter to K. P. Pobedonostev (24 August 1879), Dostoevsky writes that he was uncertain of its success:

Will it be an answer enough? The more so as it is not a direct point for point answer to the propositions previously expressed (in the Grand Inquisitor and earlier) but an oblique one. Something completely opposite to the world view expressed earlier [that of Ivan’s] appears in this part, but again it appears not point by point so to speak in artistic form. And that is what worries me, that is, will I be understood and will I attain anything of my aim? 17

Dostoevsky hoped that Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor and the problem of evil would be “triumphantly refuted” in the life and teachings of the Elder Zosima. 18 Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov stresses love and redemption over nihilism. He has been understood, but the question remains: did he attain his aim?


  1. Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881 (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002) 282.
  2. Vyacheslav Ivanov, Freedom and the Tragic Life: A Study in Dostoevsky, ed. S. Konovalov, trans. Norman Cameron. Sixth printing (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971) 3.
  3. Edward Wasiolek, trans & ed. The Notebooks for The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971) 7-9.
  4. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. trans. Constance Garnett (Chicago: William Benton, 1952) Book V:4.
  5. Fyodor, Dostoevsky, “Dostoevsky’s Letters.” The Brothers Karamazov. trans. Constance Garnett, ed. & rev. Ralph E. Matlaw (New York: Norton and Co. Inc., 1976). 757-759.
  6. Dostoevsky, “Dostoevsky’s Letters” 760.
  7. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Book V:5.
  8. Robert Belkamp, The Genesis of The Brothers Karamazov: The Aesthetics, Ideology, and Psychology of Making a Text (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1990) 131.
  9. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Letters of Fyodor Dostoevsky to his Family and Friends. trans.Ethel Colburn Mayne (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1961) 258.
  10. Belknap 128.
  11. D. H. Lawrence, “The Grand Inquisitor,” The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett. ed. & rev. Ralph E. Matlaw. (New York: Norton and Co. Inc., 1976) 830.
  12. Wasiolek, 2-4.
  13. Dostoevsky, “Dostoevsky’s Letters” 759.
  14. Wasiolek 4.
  15. Ernest Simmons, Feodor Dostoevsky, Columbia Essays on Modern Writers: Number 40. ed. William York Tindall (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969) 45.
  16. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Book VI:3.
  17. Dostoevsky, “Dostoevsky’s Letters” 762.
  18. Dostoevsky, “Dostoevsky’s Letters” 758.