Dostoevsky's The Meek One Crime and Punishment The Brothers Karamazov

Rational Perversions of Love in The Brothers Karamazov: Spiritually Fruitless, yet Thematically Useful

Published: August 23, 2013

In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky spends countless pages elucidating his ideal of love. Among his many characters, he offers complex portraits of two intriguing individuals, whose love does not quite fit his definition of this ideal. The Grand Inquisitor and, by extension, his creator Ivan, are often seen as simply hyper-rational characters who reject God’s love. However, this paper proposes that the Grand Inquisitor’s scheme is actually an expression of active love, a principle that is highly extolled in the Christianity that he apparently rejects. Likewise, Ivan is also portrayed by Dostoevsky as a loving individual. Yet ultimately, in the context of the discussion of Christian love, Dostoevsky views both Ivan’s and the Inquisitor’s expressions of love as insufficient. They do not fulfill the Christian ideal of actively loving your neighbor in accordance with God’s will. But these corrupted expressions of love have two important roles in the grand scheme of the novel: they allow Dostoevsky both to further define his ideal by small but sharp contrast and to show that all humans are capable of this active love.

Dostoevsky explicates his ideal throughout The Brothers Karamazov, manifesting it in the teachings and actions of Father Zosima. This Christian monk is consistently the most positive and mature character in the novel in both word and deed, constantly displaying the definition of Christian love as concisely explained by Christ multiple times in the Bible. For instance, in Matthew 2: 27-30, Jesus proclaims: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”[1]

Dostoevsky’s views, as outlined in his nonfictional writings, show his devotion to Christ and the ideals expressed by Christ. Though Dostoevsky doubted Christianity early in life, his faith is later explicitly stated in an 1854 letter to Natalia Fonvizin: “I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly and more perfect than the Savior;…If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not the truth” (Dirscherl, 52).[2]

Thus, this paper will consider Zosima’s definition of love to be that of Dostoevsky’s. As active love is a basic tenet of Christianity, Zosima naturally includes it in his teachings. Early in the novel, Zosima states that “the experience of active love” is to “strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably” (Dostoevsky 56).[3] This echoes the teachings of Christ in the Bible.

Dostoevsky employs Ivan and the Grand Inquisitor to make an insightful contrast with his ideal of love. Dostoevsky clarifies his ideal by displaying two types of love that nearly approximate it. Ivan Karamazov has a loving nature, but does not act upon his compassionate impulses. The Grand Inquisitor also possesses this disposition, but acts upon it in the wrong way. Both men serve as a challenge to Christian love, a challenge that complicates and ultimately strengthens Dostoevsky’s argument for it. With these two near-manifestations of love, Dostoevsky reinforces that his ideal must be both actively and correctly pursued.

Dostoevsky also uses these two unfulfilled expressions of love to display that all humans have the potential to exercise his ideal of love. Ivan Karamazov and the Grand Inquisitor are both extremely intelligent, logical human beings. Dostoevsky thus establishes them as what many might consider to be stereotypically the opposite of individuals capable of strong faith and love. As Hebrews 11:1 states that “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see,” this loving Christian faith may seem to be opposed to rationality[4].  But by imbuing these rationalists with ultimately compassionate hearts, Dostoevsky implies that all humans are capable of exercising Christian love. The perversions of love demonstrated by the Grand Inquisitor and Ivan actually support his theme of universal responsibility to and for all of humanity.

Zosima emulates Christ in his actions, as he exhibits vital compassion in everyday life. As a monk, he often provides spiritual comfort for others. When a woman comes to him who has doubts about the afterlife, he reassures her and offers her sound and gentle advice, telling her to “always remember that you are on the right road, and try not to leave it” (58). In his discussion with her, Zosima advocates for a sincere love without falsity. He further notes that pursuing active love will lead to a firm faith in a Christian God. Thus, he again connects the ideals of faith and love. Soon after this incident, he bows to Dmitri to acknowledge and pity his future suffering. This action physically displays Zosima’s profound sense of compassion for others,

Like Zosima, Ivan is full of passionate love, even to the point of excessive sentimentality: “Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky, I love some people, whom one loves you know sometimes without knowing why” (252). His love for other humans even takes a specific object, as he states that he has fallen in love with Katerina Ivanovna. Yet Ivan does not express this love in an active form. While at times very emotional and certainly not devoid of love, he never decisively acts upon his loving impulses, romantic or otherwise.

Ivan also states repeatedly that he has a great love and sympathy for the human race. When faced with the idea that human salvation requires human suffering, he finds this exchange unacceptable: “I don’t want harmony. From love of humanity I don’t want it” (269). However, he rarely, if ever, acts upon this humanistic impulse. Though he feels a general sentiment for the welfare of humanity, he struggles to localize it. He recognizes this himself: “I could never understand how one can love one’s neighbors. It’s just one’s neighbors, to my mind, that one can’t love, though one might love those at a distance” (259). Alyosha, too, can see the loving nature of his brother: “But the little sticky leaves, and the precious tombs, and the blue sky, and the woman you love! How will you live, how will you love them? With such a hell in your heart and your head, how can you?” (289). Alyosha also identifies the problematic nature of Ivan’s spirit. Because of his inner conflict, Ivan cannot fully express his love.

The root of this inner conflict is his overreliance on logic. Ivan’s internal debates over the lack of rationality in the world prevent him from accepting the universe. For Ivan, God made the world too complex for humans to be able to comprehend it:

But you must note this: if God exists and if He really did create the world, then, as we all know, He created it according to the geometry of Euclid and the human mind with the conception of only three dimensions in space. Yet there have been and still are geometricians and philosophers, and even some of the most distinguished, who doubt whether the whole universe, or to speak more widely the whole of being, was only created in Euclid’s geometry; they even dare to dream that two parallel lines, which according to Euclid can never meet on earth, may meet somewhere in infinity. I have come to the conclusion that, since I can’t understand even that, I can’t expect to understand about God. I acknowledge humbly that I have no faculty for settling such questions, I have a Euclidian earthly mind, and how could I solve problems that are not of this world? (257)

Of course, his dissatisfaction with the world also stems from his compassion for the suffering of the people in it. Ivan paints in excruciating detail the stories of countless children who have been brutally and needlessly tortured. Because these innocents have not truly sinned, Ivan finds that there is no justifiable reason why they should be punished: “If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony” (268).

Though Ivan’s inner conflict may be inspired by his compassion, it is solidified by his rationality. His extremely intellectual nature forces him to seek an immediate explanation for every occurrence. Because he cannot move beyond this impulse, he cannot accept the illogical nature of God’s world, and by extension, God Himself. Ivan claims that he has some sort of faith in God: “I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer” (268). Yet this faith has no solidity, as he cannot accept the unjust suffering that God has allowed in this world. And because faith and love are inherently intertwined for Dostoevsky, he thus also cannot manifest love.

Therefore, in the character of Ivan, Dostoevsky seems to imply that rationality is opposed to loving faith. To love fully, one must learn to abandon some reliance on rationality and accept the mystery of the world. Because he does not, Ivan’s personality is thus uncomfortably split between his compassionate impulse and his extreme need for rationality. This split personality is carried to its breaking point later in the novel, as, at least in his imagination, his thoughts are divided into two different personae: his own self and a demon. Subsequently, Ivan mentally collapses into brain fever, which implies that neglecting love is unhealthy and destructive.  In presenting the inner tortures of an individual who does not actively love, Dostoevsky reinforces the extreme necessity of this practice.

While Ivan does not actively love, his favorite literary creation can do what he cannot. In order to explicate his worldview, Ivan composes a narrative poem involving a Grand Inquisitor’s confrontation with Jesus Christ. Like Ivan, the Inquisitor rejects on the basis of rationality the world that God has created—more specifically, the nature of human beings. When Christ returns to the world in sixteenth century Spain, the lead official of the Spanish Inquisition physically condemns the actions of Christ, as he imprisons and directly criticizes him. For the Inquisitor, Christ gave humans free will, but did not create most humans with enough strength to actually use this free will for good. Put simply, God created humans wrong. The Grand Inquisitor possesses “the conviction that millions of God’s creatures have been created as a mockery, that they will never be capable of using their freedom” (287).  Christ did not supply the “miracle, mystery, and authority” needed to give humans the strength to live satisfying lives (282). Because of this failed creation, the Grand Inquisitor seeks to create a supposedly better system for humanity, in which humans are provided with things such as food, miracles, and strict guidance. They cannot choose, but they also cannot suffer or doubt.

As the Grand Inquisitor’s philosophy is an explicit rejection of Christ’s, one may expect him also to reject the Christ-like active love. However, things are not so simple. Like God’s benevolent plan, the Grand Inquisitor’s scheme actually results from his love of humanity. As with Ivan, despite his prominent rationality, compassion lurks under the intellectual surface. Dostoevsky explicitly stresses multiple times that the Grand Inquisitor is a loving being. He is described as an “accursed old man who loves mankind so obstinately in his own way” (288). The Grand Inquisitor feels a great deal of sympathy for his fellow human beings, and thus longs to help them find happiness. Despite his rationality and rejection of God’s love, he “could not shake off his incurable love of humanity,” recalling some very similar lines from his creator (288).

As the Inquisitor is Ivan’s literary creation, the two share many characteristics, such as this duality of rationality and compassion. The Grand Inquisitor differs from Ivan, however, in one very significant way: in contrast to Ivan’s passivity, the Grand Inquisitor puts his sympathetic impulse into practice. The Inquisitor is motivated by love, and actually acts upon this motivation. This description sounds eerily familiar. Does it not logically follow that he practices active love? Dostoevsky does ultimately reject this Inquisitorial love, but he does not do it lightly.

Perhaps this particular love needs better clarification. The Grand Inquisitor clearly thinks that his actions are motivated by love, as he asks, “Did we not love mankind, so meekly acknowledging their feebleness, lovingly lightening their burden, and permitting their weak nature even sin with our sanction?” (282). A Christian, like Zosima, would undoubtedly point out flaws in his active love. Yet the Grand Inquisitor is fully aware of Christian doctrine, and he finds flaws of his own within Christian love. As God asks too much of weak humans, the Grand Inquisitor assumes He does not truly love them: “Thou didst choose what was utterly beyond the strength of men, acting as though Thou didst not love them at all” (280). The Inquisitor even suggests a way to reform Christ’s love for humanity: “Respecting him less, Thou wouldst have asked less of him. That would have been more like love, for his burden would have been lighter” (281-282). And of course, the Grand Inquisitor acts upon this reformation of the apparent flaws of the Christian God’s plan. The Grand Inquisitor’s remarks about the flawed nature of Christ’s love call into question Dostoevsky’s Christian ideal, forcing the reader to reevaluate it.

Yet despite his high position within the church and his extensive experience with Christianity, the Grand Inquisitor actually misunderstands Christian theology. Though he correctly notes that Jesus “didst crave for free love,” this is not freedom in the usual sense (281). Zosima defines true freedom as freedom from material things, which can be achieved by following God:  “Obedience, fasting and prayer are laughed at, yet only through them lies the way to real, true freedom” (349). Thus, in the greatest form of freedom, humans are not actually weak, as the Grand Inquisitor assumes. Instead, they are strengthened by choosing to rely on the will of God: Zosima notes that “with God’s help I attain freedom of spirit and with it spiritual joy” (349). The Grand Inquisitor wants Christ to have given us bread in order to ensure our happiness, but Zosima views this happiness as temporal. In the Christian view, God did not supply humans with material sustenance automatically because he wanted them to follow Christ freely. And in this freedom, we are given the guidance of Christ.

In Zosima’s ideal Christian system, humans can potentially possess both freedom and support, while the Grand Inquisitor promises only the latter. In his own form of active love, he destroys humanity. By eliminating free will, the Grand Inquisitor eliminates what distinguishes humans from other animals. Although he expresses some sort of active love toward his fellow human beings, it is a perversion. He does not truly love humanity, but his own corrupted, dehumanized version of it. And in his supposedly loving action, he also paradoxically removes the common people’s ability to love. At one point, the Grand Inquisitor even admits to this: “It’s not the free judgment of their hearts, not love that matters, but a mystery which they must follow blindly” (282). While he is initially inspired by love, his perverse application of this compassion causes him to lose sight of his actual motivation. Therefore, through the figure of the Grand Inquisitor, Dostoevsky warns against the terrible ramifications of orienting love incorrectly.

In a sense, Ivan and the Grand Inquisitor serve as negative examples of human life for Dostoevsky; yet these two rebellious rationalists possess some commendable characteristics. Dostoevsky stresses repeatedly that in spite of their logic, they experience the feeling of love. For instance, Ivan fervently remarks: “I love the sticky leaves in spring, the blue sky—that’s all it is. It’s not a matter of intellect or logic, it’s loving with one’s inside, with one’s stomach” (252). In a superficial reading of The Brothers Karamazov, each of the three brothers easily maps onto one aspect of humanity: Alyosha is the spiritual, Dmitri is the sensual, and Ivan, quite obviously, is the rational. These defining traits of Alyosha and Dmitri can rather straightforwardly be manifested in Christian and erotic love, respectively. The stereotypical cold logicality of Ivan seems most opposed to the expression of love. Yet Ivan and his similarly rational fictional character frequently display some form of sympathy. Thus, they show that even the least likely are able to love.

Ivan and his literary creation therefore do not simply function as useful contrasts to the Christian model. Ultimately, they also serve to expand this ideal, placing it in a more universal context. By imbuing extremely rational thinkers such as Ivan and the Grand Inquisitor with an undeniable emotional capacity for compassion, Dostoevsky demonstrates that all humans have the potential for love. However, this potential can be unfulfilled (as in the case of Ivan) or directed or oriented improperly (as in the case of the Grand Inquisitor).  Though their expressions of love are imperfect, they are far from nonexistent.

Zosima states that Hell “is the suffering of being unable to love” (359), but even Ivan and his creation have that ability. Though, of course, rationality is not an insurmountable barrier to love, it often possesses that cultural connotation. But for Dostoevsky, all humans, even the most severely logical and those seemingly least inclined to faith, seem to inherently feel a strong sense of sympathy for others; Ivan even goes so far as to describe this sentiment as “incurable” (288).  Therefore, because all humans can love and are thus not necessarily condemned to Hell, Dostoevsky implies that all people are capable of redemption. And once they sincerely accept the pursuit of active love, they can quite easily achieve this redemption. As Zosima’s brother Markel insightfully notes in a moment of epiphany on his deathbed, “In truth we are each responsible to all for all, it’s only that men don’t know this. If they knew it, the world would be a paradise at once” (329).

This immediacy of paradise casts an optimistic tone on the novel as a whole. Most of Dostoevsky’s characters are not static; they reflect this optimism and actually change for the better. After Alyosha emulates Christ in kissing Ivan, Ivan issues a tentative reciprocation, as he promises not to commit suicide in the near future and remarks, “take it as a declaration of love if you like” (290). With this mutual exchange, Dostoevsky emphasizes the communal nature of ideal love, in which “we are responsible to all and for all” (329). This event recalls a similar interaction at the end of Ivan’s “Grand Inquisitor.” After Christ kisses the Inquisitor, the Inquisitor lets his prisoner leave unharmed. Again, Dostoevsky’s depiction of growing love here represents not only the possibility that humans can change, but evidence that they do in fact change for the better. As these two perversions of love in The Brothers Karamazov show, humans must actively strive to manifest compassion in the world with a correct orientation to the will of God. Dostoevsky’s ideal is quite difficult to perfect, as illustrated by these approximate but failed attempts to achieve it. Nevertheless, his novel demonstrates that active love is possible for everyone.


[1] MatthewHoly Bible, New International Version. NIV, 2011.

[2] Dirscherl, Denis S.J. Dostoevsky and the Catholic Church. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1986.

[3] All references unless otherwise cited refer to Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: Lowell, 1912. Print.

[4] Hebrews. Holy Bible, New International Version. NIV, 2011.

Works Cited

Dirscherl, Denis S.J. Dostoevsky and the Catholic Church. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1986.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: Lowell, 1912. Print.

Matthew. Holy Bible, New International Version. NIV, 2011.


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About the author

Molly Porter

Molly Porter is a junior at the University of Notre Dame studying Russian and the Program of Liberal Studies in the Glynn Family Honors Program. She plans on pursuing a career in academia, most likely in Russian literature.

View all posts by: Molly Porter