Follow TV Tropes


Literature / The Gadfly

Go To
The Penultimate Atheist Book

The Gadfly is a historical fiction novel written by the Irish author Ethel Voynich in the year 1897.

The Gadfly is set in the pre-unification Italian statelets during the early to mid 19th century, a time when the region was dominated by their northern neighbor, Austria. Featuring the young and naive Arthur Burton, a priest in training under his mentor, "Padre" Montanelli, the book delves into the protagonist's attempts to discredit the Papal States and their influence.

Arthur diverted from the Christian faith early on in his life due to Montanelli's unintentional betrayal of him, resulting in the protagonist fleeing from Italy to South America in order to escape his struggles. A decade later, Arthur returns to his homeland under the pseudonym 'Gadfly' and joins a revolutionary movement by helping to create propaganda against the Jesuits and other church supporters. The rest of the book follows his confrontation with authorities, romancing and eventual meeting with Montanelli.


The Gadfly rose to prominence in the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China due to its anti-religious themes fitting alongside the atheist side of communism. More than 2,500,000 copies were sold in the USSR, where it became a mandatory read in schools and regarded as a classic. The novel was adapted into multiple movies, such as Ovod by Aleksandr Faintsimme in the USSR and Niumeng by Wu Tianming in China. Ironically, the book was only translated into Italian in the 1950's.


The Gadfly contains examples of:

  • Arcadia: The way Switzerland is described by Arthur during his trip there with Montanelli.
  • A Taste of the Lash: The Gadfly is beaten severely and tied down with tight leather straps as punishment for trying to escape the military prison.
  • Attention Whore: Zita, the Gadfly's "follower". While the man is sick she is out flirting with cavalry officers and attending parties, although she really loves the Gadfly. He doesn't feel the same way.
  • Bedsheet Ladder: Arthur uses this to escape his jail.
  • Big Fancy House: The Burton residence, complete with servants, maids, big rooms and the spoiled aristocracy.
  • Big "YES!": Arthur upon being given the opportunity to study in the mountains with his teacher, Montanelli.
  • Blade Enthusiast: The Knifer society shuns firearms, believing knives to be superior to other weaponry in assassination attempts.
  • Break the Believer: This happens to Montanelli as a result of confronting Arthur and rejecting his proposition of helping him get away and abandoning Christianity. At the very end of the book, Montanelli realizes that he had sacrificed his son to stay Christian, and suffers a mental breakdown.
    • similarly, happens to Arthur when he discovers that Montanelli is his father, thus condemning Christianity for its hypocrisy and becoming an atheist.
  • Came Back Strong: Arthur escapes to South America after realizing that Montanelli was his father despite originally planning a suicide. When he comes back to Italy as the Gadfly, he is older and appears more mature, but also ready to confront his problems instead of running away.
    • Inverted in the same case as Arthur is physically disfigured in South America by a poker.
  • The Captain: The Gadfly is this to his smugglers, giving out orders and generally acting like their leader.
  • Central Theme: Religion is opium for the people.
  • The Chick: Gemma, Arthur's first love interest and the only major female member of the resistance.
  • Corrupt Church: The way the resistance views the Jesuits. Arthur takes this up to eleven.
  • Crapsack World: The way Arthur describes South America.
  • Dark Secret: Montanelli is Arthur's real father, and upon realizing this truth Arthur attempts suicide, fails, and then leaves for South America.
  • Declining Promotion: Inverted. Montanelli receives word from Rome that he is to be promoted to his own bishopric, which means leaving Arthur. Montanelli is at first reluctant to go, but Arthur doesn't convince Montanelli to decline the position and thus the priest leaves. He eventually reaches the rank of Cardinal towards the end of the book.
  • Destroy the Evidence: Arthur burns the letters sent to him by the resistance that tell him of their plan to break him out of jail.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Arthur dies in Montanelli's arms just as the cardinal rushes into the execution to try and stop it-he is too late.
  • Dislikes the New Guy: Martini openly tells Gemma that he dislikes the Gadfly due to the man's rashness and theatrical nature. He also suspects that the Gadfly is part of a cult. He is right.
    • Towards the end of the book Martini learns to accept the Gadfly's contributions towards the cause and even considers Arthur to be a more useful member than himself. This is further confirmed when Martini offers to sacrifice himself in an attempt to break Arthur out of prison by distracting the guards so that a rescue team can get past the security.
  • Downer Ending: Arthur is executed, Montanelli suffers a mental breakdown, and Gemma doesn't get the chance to apologize to the Gadfly who she only then realizes to be Arthur. The Gadfly was also arguably one of the resistance's most valuable assets, and without his help, the future of their cause looks bleak.
  • The Exile: Arthur, although voluntarily.
  • The Gadfly: Trope Namer.
  • God Is Evil: Arthur makes this point to Montanelli when he pleads the cardinal to abandon Christianity and come along with him. When Montanelli is reluctant to accept Arthur claims the Christian God to be evil.
    • When Arthur is executed by the prison authorities and Montanelli comes to witness his son's killing, the Gadfly's last words are about the Christian God wanting human sacrifice such as himself.
  • The Grotesque: Arthur turns into this upon visiting South America. He receives a saber-scar on his face, stuttering, scars on his arms and is forced to participate in a freak show to be able to make a living.
    • The variety shows that pass through Italy, full of hunchbacks who become the laughing stock of the crowds.
  • Faith–Heel Turn: Montanelli when he gives a speech during the town parade. He realizes that it was he that killed Arthur by choosing Christianity over his son, causing him to publicly condemn his faith before suffering a breakdown.
  • Healing Herb: The opium given to the Gadfly during one of his sicknesses to ease the pain.
  • The Hero Dies: The Gadfly gets executed after Montanelli agrees to allow the governor to court-martial the protagonist.
    • What Gemma thinks happened to Arthur at the end of the first part.
  • Heroic Resolve: Subverted. The Gadfly gets sick while attempting to escape the jail, but despite the pain across all of his body he manages to cut the bars and make it down to the courtyard but before he can make it to the escape tunnel the Gadfly collapses and is found by some guards.
  • Ignored Expert: Inverted. The resistance in part two always listen to Gemma's advice, partially due to her implied expertise in social and political matters, but also because she always turns out to be right.
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Justified as the prison guards don't want to be the ones who deliver the killing blow to the Gadfly (due to their love for him) and instead hope to shoot away from the heart or head, instead allowing their comrade to kill. This backfires, as all three guards follow this mentality, resulting in it taking half a dozen bullets to kill the man.
  • I Own This Town: The cardinal Montanelli is so popular among the Italian population that the governors of some towns are reluctant to even make a decision without at least informing the priest.
  • La Résistance: Young Italy pre-1840s and the anti-Austrian resistance in the 1840s.
  • The Medic: Doctor Riccardo.
  • Mentor Archetype: Montanelli to Arthur. The latter almost seems to worship the priest as a god, revering at the opportunity to go for a retreat to the mountains with Montanelli.
  • Minor Living Alone: The homeless boy the Gadfly rescues from an abusive uncle. The boy is implied to have been given to the orphanage in the end.
  • My God, What Have I Done??: Montanelli's reaction to sentencing his own son to death. This leads to him losing sanity at the end of the book when confronted with masses of people whom Montanelli thought he was saving from Arthur.
    • Arthur upon realizing that HE had betrayed Young Italy's secrets to the authorities after confessing his sins to Father Cardi, a secret undercover agent sent to spy on potential revolutionaries.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: When Padre was promoted to a higher position and forced to leave town, Father Cardi was sent to replace him. Arthur, although a part of Young Italy, felt it necessary to report the rebel group's actions to the priest. Turns out Father Cardi was a little more than that...
  • Noodle Incident: The Gadfly tells Martini and Riccardo that his disfigurement is due to him encountering a jaguar in the Amazon. His hunting rifle turned out to be watered.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: In the third part, The Gadfly is captured and put into a military prison after failing to escape during a shootout. Gemma and the team formulate a plan to break Arthur out, and it almost works, until Arthur gets sick and is unable to escape. A second attempt is conjured by Martini which involves him attacking the governor in order to divert the prison's guards to his location, giving a group of smugglers the time to free the Gadfly, but Arthur is executed before this can happen.
  • No Range Like Point-Blank Range: Martini proposes to shoot the governor right in the face so that the Gadfly may be rescued in all the commotion. One wonders why shooting at him from afar with a rifle won't have the same effect...
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: The chanting done by the chorus in the town parade in the last chapter. This contributes to Montanelli's insanity.
  • Pacifist: Montanelli. He blocks Arthur's shot at the soldiers trying to arrest him, thus stunning the Gadfly and allowing him to be captured. He also sacrifices Arthur's life in favor of preventing a riot during the town parade.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: A hostile take over of many military and religious centers is implied to happen due to the weapon smuggling done by the resistance.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: The Gadfly seems to have hordes of smugglers on his side, ready to assist him at all times.
    • The prison compound is accurately believed by the governor to be compromised by guards loyal to the resistance or converted to the Gadfly's side, thus making his chances of escape extremely high.
  • Secret Underground Passage: Arthur is meant to escape the military prison via this.
  • Suicide Mission: Martini proposes this as a forlorn attempt to break the Gadfly out of prison. The plan involves Martini coming up to the governor during a town event and shooting him point blank in the face, thus causing all guards from the jail to rush over, giving the smugglers enough time to break out the Gadfly. This is never implemented, however, as Arthur is executed the morning of the event.
  • Trojan Prisoner: The resistance has multiple authority guards secretly on their side. The Cricket, a prison warden, attempts to help the Gadfly escape.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Montanelli, if you consider him to be a villain at all.
  • Vulnerable Convoy: Martini proposes to help break out the Gadfly out of prison by arranging for him to be transferred via a very weak convoy through a smuggler infested area.
    • Also the reason for why the governor couldn't transfer Arthur to a more secure prison - he was afraid that the wagon would come under attack.
  • We Can Rule Together: The Gadfly tells this to Montanelli, giving him the offer to join the resistance and fight against Christianity. He refuses.
  • We Meet Again: Arthur to Montanelli during their last confrontation in the military prison, where the Gadfly reveals himself to be Arthur. Montanelli is obviously taken aback by this reveal...
  • What Happened to the Mouse??: The child that Arthur rescues in part two. Once brought home and treated for a physical injury, the child's fate is never fully revealed, with Arthur stating that he will either give him to the orphanage or find some relative, although his ultimate decision is unknown.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Arthur before he became the Gadfly. He thought that his path in Young Italy would turn out for the best and him getting a heroic moment with his love-interest, Gemma. Also, Arthur's eyes are described as being wide and blue.
  • Younger Than They Look: The Gadfly is in his early 30's by the start of part two, but is described as having so many physical injuries that he appears like an old man from a war zone.