It was Euripides who said “cleverness is not wisdom.” When it comes to creative writing, this is probably doubly true. Novels that are in love with how clever they are are unbearable. Trying too hard to be clever with the reader (i.e. trying too hard to lead your reader to make a specific religious or political conclusion outside the context of the novel) is excellent grounds for a two-dimensional story. It won’t matter how many layers you think you’re draping over your characters, the reader will feel every page as paper.
Ethel Voynich’s The Gadfly (1897) seeks to bludgeon the reader with the idea that Catholicism is inherently anti-revolutionary because it seeks to insert itself into every facet of people’s lives, including —especially including— politics. Religion gets in the way of love and logic. Voynich seeks to accomplish this message through her (unintentionally) borderline-comedic tragedy of a young revolutionary named Arthur Burton. As a young English Catholic in the 1840s, Burton goes to Italy —which is at the time under austere Austrian control—to study to become a priest, but is introduced to and falls in love with revolutionary ideas, to which he dedicates his life. He winds up losing his innocence, faith, family, lover, and health as a result. Eventually he dies. Horribly.
At the center of the story is the relationship between Arthur and the antagonist, Cardinal Montanelli , Arthur’s former mentor and —gasp!— father. Arthur blames his father for keeping him a secret (Arthur finds out about who his real father is in a letter left by his deceased mother). And as if that isn’t bad enough, on two separate occasions, Voynich likens Arthur and the Cardinal’s relationship to that of two lovers.
Arthur fakes his death and runs away from Italy, bribing a sailor to take him to Argentina where he can restart his life. Unfortunately, he can only find servant work and hard labor and is eventually horribly maimed, the victim of an evil man’s drunken rage. He is then forced to join the circus as a disfigured person for crowds of people to gawk and laugh at. Most of his performances involved bells and took place at sunset, so he returns to Italy hating bells and unable to watch a sunset.
While the history of the mistreatment of sideshow performers is widely known and well documented, life in South America is portrayed as uniformly barbaric and soulless. At one point, Voynich even makes the insanely racist contention that the reason Arthur’s bosses treat him so badly is because they used to be slaves and are eager to become the master themselves.
Anyway, Arthur allegedly becomes involved in the Argentine Revolution and begins to make a career for himself as “The Gadfly,” his nom de plume as an incendiary political satirist, working with revolutionary groups to subvert those in power by distributing his biting caricatures of them to the people. His work takes him back to Europe, where he is reunited with his former lover, Gemma, (whose rejection of him contributed to the faking of his own death, and who doesn’t recognize him upon his return due to his disfigurement) and his father, Cadinal Montanelli, aforementioned Pillar of Catholicism.
Gemma has risen through the ranks of the revolutionaries in Italy and is now a key decision maker in the ongoing battle to take on the Catholic oligarchy. Her fellow leaders call in The Gadfly to help rally the masses. After that, things become relatively predictable: The Gadfly reminds Gemma of someone, and she half-believes it’s Arthur. Meanwhile, in disguise, Arthur has several meetings with his father (who also doesn’t recognize him), and although he feels nothing but love for his father, he feels nothing but hatred toward Catholicism and struggles to forgive the Cardinal. As such, he only works to humiliate and degrade Montanelli at every step, not because he wants to, but because he feels he has to. Arthur begins taking on riskier and riskier missions, until he is eventually caught, reveals his identity to his father, and forces his father to make a final once-and-for-all choice: have him put to death (what the law dictates, given his revolutionary activities) or renounce Catholicism forever. In the first paragraph, I mentioned Arthur dies horribly, so you can probably guess how that went down.
The most wrenching scene in the novel is definitely this one, with Arthur chained to a hospital bed, badly injured, and his father weeping and beating his chest with remorse and pity that his son will not allow himself to be saved and is in the process forcing him to consent to his death sentence. Given how much allegory follows this scene, it probably isn’t too much of a leap to consider this moment its own Gethsemane, but with the added point of view of the father hearing his son and suffering with him.
The moment Arthur is executed by firing squad the next day is positively biblical. If she hadn’t already done so, here Voynich definitely elevates Arthur to a christlike figure, who dies for the sake of everyone, especially those who did him most wrong, he forgives his reluctant killers before they fire, and in the aftermath, in the middle of a festival Mass, Montanelli has a fit and begins screaming about his son (which the community knows nothing about), making it sound like he is speaking as God, which scares the hell out of everyone. The crowd runs from the church in horror. Then he dies.
The moral of the novel is religion is evil and keeps the people down. It leads to bloodshed, forces us to choose prescribed “values” over the people we love, and supports corruption at the expense of those who can least afford it and who do not benefit from it. The entire novel is a twisted, adult Aesop’s fable. It is too one-sided in its view, and none of the characters are allowed enough space to become rounded, multi-dimensional people.
Any novel that takes a black-and-white view of religion, certainly of an entire continent, can’t teach you much. On the whole, religion is not evil. There are evil people who try to justify and advance evil ideas under the guise of religion—evil people are like that. Arthur’s problem is not really Catholicism, it’s corruption. He cannot differentiate between the two. In an American election year where the current Republican frontrunner is advocating war crimes and discrimination on the basis of religion because of a very small minority of people who commit heinous acts and try to justify them with religion, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to read The Gadfly as an example of what too much objectivity in one’s world view looks like.
Just to end on a nice note: there is one beautiful scene, and it’s about youth and aging, and it’s toward the beginning. I think it’s the only scene with a caveat that isn’t heavy-handed. Before Arthur is betrayed and leaves Italy, as a seminary student, he travels to Switzerland with Montanelli, who watches in amazement as his son falls into a rapturous mood in the beauty of the forest and mountains:
He would lie for hours motionless in the dark, secret, echoing pine-forests, looking out between the straight, tall trunks into the sunlit outer world of flashing peaks and barren cliffs. Montanelli watched him with a kind of sad envy.
“I wish you could show me what you see, carino,” he said one day as he looked up from his book, and saw Arthur stretched beside him on the moss in the same attitude as an hour before, gazing out with wide, dilated eyes into the glittering expanse of blue and white…Arthur raised his head with eyes full of wonder and mystery.
“What I see, Padre? I see a great, white being in a blue void that has no beginning and no end. I see it waiting, age after age, for the coming of the Spirit of God. I see it through a glass darkly.”
“I used to see those things once.”
“Do you never see them now?”
“Never. I shall not see them any more. They are there, I know; but I have not the eyes to see them. I see quite other things” (9).
Although the intention in the main might have been to imply that religion has stripped Montanelli of the ability to see beauty in the world, I think it’s more about not allowing ourselves to become blind to it.
All quotes are from the March, 2014 reprint of The Gadfly available through the CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.