S'hi's Reviews > The Gadfly

The Gadfly by Ethel Lilian Voynich
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's review
Jan 23, 2012

it was ok
Read in November, 2011

Half a dozen party pies for lunch and just finished The Gadfly on 3pm. Seemed quite well written for the most part, but went very sentimental and romantic at the end. A couple of places where it jumped a little in continuity as well = especially where Arthur finally reveals himself to the Cardinal. There had been no hints in the narrative to prepare for this, whereas at least with Gemma there had been hints and inklings on each side. But a couple of other things I found disturbing in the writing style as well. One was the sudden way in which all the prison guards seemed to take to the Gadfly’s humour and personality, when most of those around him in his own group were still a bit put out by his behaviour and tendency to push things to uncomfortable extremes for no apparent reason in their eyes. He did not seem to be teaching them anything positive. He just had his own expectations and outcomes which were beyond everyone else, and only seemed steeped in revenge on the person closest to him in his youth who had lied seemingly against that person’s own belief and not just his own. This made much of the drama about his ‘goodness’ actually seem quite puerile = I have suffered for and because of you, when really he brought it all on himself. And then in the final throws to equate himself with Jesus facing the cross.

It seems so strange to me that the only image atheists can use for their own point of view is to be against the strange images of the church. Surely if they have any merit of their own it should stand clear and firm in its own right. At least with primitive religions they do have their own alternative rituals and ways of seeing beyond such harsh and judgmental images. But much of what they have used as their own language has been usurped by organised religions anyway. So that makes claiming anything back seem even harsher than the measures by which such theft originally occurred.

However the sense that atheists call themselves ‘rationalists’ seem the most far-fetched point to me. They don’t seem to be any clearer in their thinking than anyone else. And they have just as fanciful and romantic ideas and ‘passions’ about how they express themselves in word and action anyway. Although I enjoyed most of the book I found the ending quite disappointing.

The father and son facing each other over a ravine seemed a reasonable enough image to come to, but the resolution of it was mocking of the conviction of the father, above and beyond the church in which so many mere humans still struggled to improve themselves to their own ideals. And most of those in the ‘revolution’ were no greater in themselves about what they thought or did, or how they acted with each other. But they merely gave themselves the excuse that they were only human and expected no better of themselves.

Obviously Arthur/ Rivarez did strive for something greater in one sense = but that was fired by the influence of the church in his youth. And what he actually achieved as an adult was not really driven by anything higher than some means of wreaking revenge on both his father and the structure within which he resided and existed and through which he fought his own battles to raise himself above the ordinary lives of the humans around him.

Each had an extraordinary strength of character. But neither really had a greater cause in the end than their own relationship with each other which they had both sullied by their behaviour and attitudes. There is no redemption here. At least the Cardinal did all he could each and every moment of his life to raise himself as best he could to his own standards, which were strongest within himself, and not just the outward show of others in the church around him. To play the position was not of that much importance to him. But he did use the privileges he had earned to try and do better in situations than he otherwise would have been able to. It was not entirely random. It was within his own principles. Rivarez seems to have had no real driving force. Even the sense of what he and his comrades were really ‘for’ was not particularly well presented. It was a side comment to try and given them some legitimacy, without really facing the content of their issues of any claim to self-rule or whatever that was about. Merely being against the government was meant to be enough of an explanation, whereas at least the religious question was spelled out for its hypocrisy.

I got the sense overall that the book suited the romantic passions of youth baulking against authority. Especially where these terms are used in asking the Cardinal to join them – youth seems to be the main aspect put forward here as to why they should be joined. Change for the sake of change, rather than for any great injustice which needs to be addressed. And also fighting for the sake of making a point with someone who you cannot hope to hold a decent conversation with = where is the rationalism in that?

What I found useful about the book was the clear link between Catholicism and revolution which I have experienced through circles of people around me. Protestants of various forms seem to have come to their understandings in quite other ways. Yet they also seem to be just as unforgiving and difficult to talk through any issues with. But they are sidelined in this book because the real struggle being faced is within a catholic for a space against which he can face his own Catholicism and make something else of his place in the world. I don’t think it is achieved = otherwise why would he have to die = the same as Jesus = die for the cause don’t live it!

Once again there is no way forward. Only a wall to run into.
It is the living journey that I am interested in.
It does also make me realise how difficult it is for anyone else to see what I do when they are so caught up in their own ways of thinking about such things in black and white terms. The movement out of one situation seems to them to only take one particular pathway. And so to give up Catholicism is to become communist. In my father’s mind they were one and the same thing, so what does that really mean about them?
Isn’t this more about understanding the difference between the religious/ cultural part and the political part within a person… and further the economic tension of ownership and distribution which also then goes with that? But these are not the terms through which these issues are displayed and explored. There is still the sense that there are people ‘with plenty’ who donate to the cause and are supporters. While most ordinary people only have their lives and their energy to bring to anything. They have to find supporters elsewhere or be able to convince others as poor as themselves that whatever little they can live should be given up to the cause as well.

It is all war. It is all finding an enemy to stand against. It is all an inability to find another way to approach such things, because one side or the other will give up in frustration over any discussion of issues to become bogged and turn it into being entrenched and refusing to give way to anyone else. And then the other side will feel forced to use their force to counter such intransigence.

The opinions and attitudes to which they adhere seem to be irrelevant. All that seems to matter is that they feel strongly enough whatever it is that they do feel. And then they put all their energy into that position. Just to stand against those who are usually most close to themselves in ideas and personality anyway.
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