Friday, May 22, 2009

Dostoevsky and "The Grand Inquisitor" / The Temptation of Jacob

As a respite from the certain inundation of my many science-themed posts you must be feeling (and I do like to exude hyperbole), we will now drift toward a couple other topics that are rather unrelated to other material here: 19th century Russian literature and Lost. If you like neither, I suppose stopping now would be wise.


Given where we are after the Season 5 finale, there are still a lot of unknowns that make it hard to pinpoint the path Season 6 will take, but I believe the following is a very possible arc to the Lost storyline:

We have seen many literary references throughout the Lost lore, but one of the more notable ones that I will build upon here is that of the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who some consider as the founder of 20th century existentialism (the philosophy concerned with finding self and meaning of life through free will and personal responsibility). Dostoyevsky explored themes of rational thought and religion, freedom versus faith. Christian Existentialism is maybe a more specific way to describe his works as they relate to Lost, how his characters must decide on their own how to follow their life path toward (or away from) religion and faith.

You will remember that in the episode “Maternity Leave” in Season 2, Locke gives Ben a copy of Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Brothers Karamazov”, which begins a discussion between the two on how Locke is following orders from someone outside himself (Jack) rather than using his own personal responsibility to choose what to do (to push the button, or to not push the button!). By the end of the episode, the two finish their discussion, and Locke is upset that he is not following his own path but rather the path/directions of someone else (Jack). The themes of free will and existentialism are definite connections here. This book has more interesting connections to the evolving story of Lost, however.

In the novel “The Brothers Karamazov”, there is a very famous chapter entitled “The Grand Inquisitor.” In this chapter, two brothers, Ivan and Alyosha, are sitting at a table getting reacquainted with each other after a long absence, and they talk about their views on religion. Ivan tells his brother Alyosha of a poem he made long ago. In this tale, Christ comes back to earth during the Inquisition to perform a number of miracles, but is arrested and sentenced to death. As Jesus Christ waits in his jail cell, the Grand Inquisitor (GI) visits him and denounces him.

The GI denounces Jesus for His responses to the three questions Satan asks Him during the temptation of Christ. Basically, Satan tempts Jesus to perform a set of miracles to gain the trust of the masses and to rule over all of the kingdoms of the world, but Jesus refuses these in favor of offering people the freedom to choose to believe in Him or not. The GI asserts that Jesus misjudges human nature, and that most of humanity cannot handle this freedom, and so Jesus has, in essence, doomed humanity to a life of sin and despair.

The GI and the Church, through the Inquisition, have sought to right this wrong made by Jesus. The GI and the Church choose to follow Satan instead, by providing humans the miracles they need to make them believe, and to instill in them a sense of obligation to follow only what the Church says. It is the sole responsibility of a select few of the Church to take on the “burden of freedom”, to choose what the masses should do and should not do, so that even if the people are still sinning and robbed of salvation, at least they are well-fed and happy during their time on earth!

At the end of the tale, Christ says nothing, but instead kisses the GI on his “bloodless, aged lips”, and Christ is released from jail, but the GI tells him to never return.

I can’t help but see very strong connections between “The Grand Inquisitor” and the evolving tale of Jacob, the Smoke Monster and the Island. What we have seen of Jacob so far is that he is portrayed as a kindly, saintly man. He is soft-spoken, ageless, capable of miracles. He mentions choice several times in the Season 5 finale to other characters he speaks to (Hurley has the choice to come to the Island if he wants, Ben has the choice to stab Jacob, etc.). With what we know of Jacob so far, he fits in well with the character of Jesus Christ in the parable of “The Grand Inquisitor”.

Christ’s opposite in the parable is the Grand Inquisitor, much like Jacob’s opposite in Lost is the Smoke Monster/Anti-Jacob. Jacob’s viewpoint that human nature is benevolent and that free will is the right of all humans mirrors Christ’s denial of Satan during the temptation of Christ, where Christ chooses free will for humanity rather than using miracles to gain trust and rule over all of the kingdoms of Man. The GI denounces Christ for this decision and faulty viewpoint of humanity, much like Anti-Jacob denounces Jacob for thinking humans can choose the right path on their own (Anti-Locke denounces Jacob for summoning the Black Rock to the Island, saying that human nature will cause only despair and ruin).

The Grand Inquisitor and the chosen few who are given the “burden of free will” lead the masses toward the image of Christ, and the masses follow their human shepherds because they are protected and sustained through the Church. I argue that certainly we can see a connection here to how the Others are lead toward the image of Jacob and follow closely the directions of their leader(s). The leader(s) (Anti-Jacob and those Anti-Jacob influences) are the ones who decide what path to take, and the Others follow, because this provides them their community and safety. As the GI and the Church speaks of the miracles of their Roman Catholic faith to convince the people they are of the one true faith, so does the leader(s) and those Anti-Jacob influences reminds the Others of the Island’s miracles, and that the Island and the image of Jacob needs to be defended from threats (the Dharma Initiative, the Losties, the US military) to maintain their community.

A really interesting parallel is simply found in the Inquisition itself. During the Inquisition, heretics were judged for their crimes against the Church, much like we’ve seen the Smoke Monster judge those for their own crimes. The GI would judge the heretic on if he or she were damaging the path of the Church or spreading lies to its followers, and the Smoke Monster judges a person based on if they helping or hurting Anti-Jacob’s mission (and that of the chosen few) of keeping the Others in line and withholding true freedom from them.

To Anti-Jacob, the physical manifestation of Jacob damages his ability to lead his people, as was the case with the GI locking up Christ for performing His miracles. Anti-Jacob does not need a prophet like Jacob running around showing the Others that they can use their free will to peacefully live together and cohabitate with those that come to the Island. The GI did not need Christ around, either, for the same reasons. The image of Christ/Jacob and authoritarian discipline is what the people need, not free will.

Coldly, the GI mentions that, if he were to give the order to kill Jesus Christ, his people would do it without protest, and we see the same thing happen in the finale with Anti-Jacob setting up Ben to follow orders and kill Jacob. In either story, the followers kill the human representation of that which they worship.

Outside of these strong connections, there are other more trivial connections that are interesting in their own right. Names like “Ricardus” and the Other's Latin roots give another connection to the Roman Catholic faith. Also, and probably nothing, but when Jacob spoke in Russian to Ilana, it hints at us to again consider Dostoevsky’s work and the new connections we are seeing with the Smoke Monster/Anti-Jacob and “The Grand Inquisitor.”

So what does this all mean?

It is suggested that Jacob is weaving the Lost story’s timeline via weaving his tapestry, and perhaps is making sure that all of our Lost characters crash on Flight 815 and find and interact with the Others (led by Anti-Jacob and their leader). Maybe Jacob wants to give humanity another chance to prove themselves capable of sustaining free will and harmony with each other and the Island, and Anti-Jacob is adamant that that cannot happen. Now that the Grand Inquisitor (Anti-Jacob/the Smoke Monster) has banished Christ (Jacob) once again, what will happen next? Will this apparent failure of humanity lead to some cataclysmic event that actually does lead to the end of the world (or the permanent destruction of free will), unless our Lost characters find a way to fix what has been broken by the end of Season 6? Will all these characters ever learn how to coexist on the Island peacefully and on their own accord?


  1. Amazing analysis. I just read The Grand Inquisitor and thought the exact same thing. Not really sure how it is going to all play out though.

  2. Thanks! I'm pretty convinced myself. We've been discussing this over at a Lost forum, link: