Where Parents Get Their Power: Evidence from The Brothers Karamazov

January 23, 2012 | 10 5 min read

cover Each winter for the last several years I’ve read a long a novel.  With one exception they’ve been Russian. Anna Karenina in 2008. Middlemarch in 2009 (which I wrote about here). War and Peace in 2010 (which I wrote about here). This year it’s The Brothers Karamazov, which I had a false start with a decade ago on a beach vacation, and which has been staring at me on our bookshelf ever since. It also bears the potentially significant distinction of being the very last work of fiction my wife Caroline read before we met in 2002.

Last night I hustled my two young sons Jay and Wally off to bed (or at least tried to — Jay, who is two-and-a-haaaaalf, wont be hustled anywhere) in anticipation of reading the famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter. A decade earlier I’d been assigned “The Grand Inquisitor” as a standalone text in a college class on moral reasoning. Then I hadn’t gotten much out of it. Last night I was excited to see if it had improved in the intervening ten years.

“The Grand Inquisitor” is a supremely strange chapter — one of the most unique things I’ve read in literature. It takes the form of a parable, told by the atheist Ivan Karamazov to his younger brother Alyosha, a novice monk. The parable is set in 16th-century Portugal and it recounts a conversation between an aged high-ranking official in the Catholic Church known as the Grand Inquisitor and a man who arrives in town performing miracles that give rise to the suspicion that he’s the Second Coming of Christ.

The Grand Inquisitor should rejoice before this man, but instead he’s furious. He has him imprisoned and confronts him in his cell. The Grand Inquisitor berates Christ that he has no business returning to earth — he tells him that he lost all legitimacy as a leader of men when he made three fateful choices retold in the Bible in the Temptation of Christ.

In the Temptation of Christ, Jesus has been fasting in the desert for 40 days when the Devil appears to him with three offers. First the Devil asks Christ to turn stones into loaves in order to relieve his hunger.  Christ declines to perform the miracle. Then the Devil tells Christ to prove that he is the Son of God by falling from a high cliff, trusting that angels will catch him. Christ declines. Finally, the Devil offers to give Christ dominion over all the kingdoms of men if Christ agrees to worship him. Again, Christ declines.

The Temptation of Christ is usually understood as evidence of Christ’s divinity and his humanity — he was tempted, like a man, but resisted temptation, like God. The Grand Inquisitor understands Christ’s refusals differently, however; in his view Christ declined each temptation based on a naïve view of human nature.

As the Grand Inquisitor tells it, Christ knew that he’d assume an absolute power over mankind if he accepted the Devil’s offers – a power that he didn’t want. The Grand Inquisitor explains that there are three foundations on which the powerful rule — miracle, mystery, and authority — each of which would have been manifest in Christ had he given in to the Devil’s temptations.

So why did Christ refuse to perform acts that would have given him such authority over humankind? The Grand Inquisitor imputes that Christ refused this authority because he did not want to deny people their free will. He charges that Christ knew that accepting the Devil’s temptations would have resulted in humanity being compelled to obedience, when what Christ really wanted was for people to understand Good and Evil for themselves, and to come to faith free of coercion, through the exercise of their own reason and will.

What a Pollyanna, the Grand Inquisitor mocks Christ! In the Grand Inquisitor’s view people are too weak for freedom. Just look around at all the ruin and despair on earth he says to Christ. This is what results when people are left to be free:

Freedom, free reason, and science will lead them into such a maze, and confront them with such miracles and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, unruly and ferocious, will exterminate themselves; others, unruly but feeble, will exterminate each other; and the remaining third, feeble and wretched, will crawl to our [the Catholic Church’s] feet and cry out to us: “Yes, you were right, you alone possess his mystery, and we are coming back to you — save us from ourselves.”

What people really crave, the Grand Inquisitor says, is someone to rule them. This is what the Catholic Church provides he says — an absolute authority, a sanctuary from freedom — and he tells Christ to leave town immediately, lest he disrupt the essential edifice the pontiffs have built the last 1500 years.

My youngest son Wally is seven-months-old and still occasionally needs to be walked back to sleep at night. The night I read “The Grand Inquisitor” he woke up a little after 2am. As I paced him back and forth in his downstairs room, I thought about the pages I’d read earlier that evening. It occurred to me that the Grand Inquisitor’s interpretation of the Temptation of Christ effectively describes the power I hold over my two sons.

In their eyes I perform countless miracles each day. Occasionally these are bona fide feats, like last week, when I pried apart two stuck Legos that had resisted every effort of my little son’s fingers. More often, though, they’re more pedestrian achievements like reaching high into cabinets my sons cannot reach, or promising that in 10 minutes their mom will walk through the front door, and then she does.

I possess the power of mystery, too. If my two-year-old son Jay had the wherewithal he might ask, “Who is this man who claims to have given me life? Where did he learn to pee standing up? How is it that he sees me even when I put my hands over my eyes? It is beyond my ability to comprehend him, so I accept and submit to the mystery of his existence.”

And of course, authority. This fall I told Jay that on October 31 he had to walk around our neighborhood dressed as a cow. Then for two weeks after that I told him precisely how many pieces of Halloween candy he could eat each day. To him I am the greatest power on earth.

This is all a good thing. Small children in possession of too much freedom are a dangerous thing. Left to their own devices my sons would eat yogurt all day (Jay), spend hours gnawing on cardboard (Wally), and put their hands in all manner of disgusting places with no regard for the teeming germs (both of them). Just like the Grand Inquisitor said, I save my sons from themselves.

But eventually, of course, they’ll be old enough to save themselves. I imagine they’ll free themselves from the power of my miracles first. My mystery may last longer — I’m 30 and my own father still appears to me with a certain unfathomable aura — but as Jay and Wally grow up they’ll discover that there are more interesting mysteries in the world than me.

As for my authority, well, that will be a negotiated withdrawal. When they’re ready to handle freedom they can have more of it, and if I’m slow to recognize their progress I’m sure they’ll let me know.

I hope neither Jay nor Wally grows up to be like any of the Karamazov brothers (at least not as they’re depicted through page 367 of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, which is where I am now). Still, there is something beautiful about this expression of Ivan’s, which comes a couple chapters before “The Grand Inquisitor.” It speaks to feelings that you can only experience when you have the power to decide for yourself what’s valuable in the world:

Though I do not believe in the order of things, still the sticky little leaves that come out in the spring are dear to me, the blue sky is dear to me, some people are dear to me, whom one loves sometimes, would you believe it, without even knowing why; some human deeds are dear to me, which one has perhaps long ceased believing in, but still honors with one’s heart, out of old habit.

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at growingsideways.wordpress.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.


  1. I’m reading The Bros. K. with a good friend, and I’m almost in the exact same place. Still, at 28, I can say there is an inexplicable mystery about the relationship I have with my parents – particularly my father.

    It also reminds me of the Curse of Ham, where the subject is cursed for seeing his father naked. His brothers are not because they covered him.

  2. The family-related truth that I feel in Karamazov is simply that we don’t question our family–it’s just there, our absolute context, inescapable, like the horizon and the sky.

  3. I love your writing. This piece is going straight into my journal as one giant block quote I wish I’d written. Except I might add that I’d be proud if my boy grew up to be an Alyosha (though I would worry about him constantly).

  4. “The family-related truth that I feel in Karamazov is simply that we don’t question our family–it’s just there, our absolute context, inescapable, like the horizon and the sky.” Love it, Shelley.

    And thanks, Chris, for the kind words. I will keep that in mind about Alyosha as I continue reading. (Things got good last night- the “Delirium” chapter with Mitya and Grushenka at the Inn culminating in his arrest. I cant wait until nightfall and time to read again!

  5. Kevin, I really appreciated your kind words. Karamazov has always been my favorite novel. I actually read it out loud (bit by bit) to my young daughter years ago, and she taught me that there’s actually humor in this book. Every word uttered by Smerdyakov made her laugh wickedly.

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