The Grand Inquisitor Background

The Grand Inquisitor Background

The short story that many students and reader confront under the title “The Grand Inquisitor” was, is and likely always will be a fully integrated yet curiously independent standalone chapter in The Brothers Karamazov. In any other definitive novel by a famous writer or by other writer of lesser fame, the chapter would stick out like a sore thumb. Amazingly, however, in the hands of a giant of literature like Dostoevsky a chapter that begins with begins with imagery of the archangel Michael leading a saintly woman through hell ands with a Christly kiss between of the Karamazov brothers. In between, apropros and consequential to little else that actaully happens in the novel, it become one of the strangest yet deeply moving reflective essays on the nature of organized religion and free will.

At a certain point, it can almost seem as though the Russian literary giant among Russian literary giants did write it as a separate piece of short fiction and then later reworked it around the edges to it into his exhaustible masterpiece as a bit of narcissistic showing off. That is not the case, however. Dostoevsky published The Brothers Karamazov in 1881 and then promptly went about making the mistake of dying shortly thereaftr. In the hegemony gap left in the wake of this absence, the very first publication of an English-language translation of “The Grand Inquisitor” appeared in print fifty years later.

The problems inherent in any translation of a literary work from its original language into another is but another issue that has plagued attempts to rip the chapter from its surroundings while still retaining context. A third big issue has been questionable editiorial license. Randomly choose any ten examples of “The Grand Inquisitor” published as a short story rather than an excerpt from the novel and chances are (even if taken from the same translation) that at least nine of them will not be a word-for-word match. As for matching up with each other, that is unlikely as well.

Truly, the decision to turn the most idiosyncratic and—even before it started showing up in literature anthologies—the most famous chapter from The Brothers Karamazov into a short story was a strange one. Its legacy has been one that continues to call forth the question that would probably be swirling through Dostoevsky's head if he were to return from the grave: what were the thinking?

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