The Socialist Hero: The Chronotope of E.L. Voynich’s ‘The Gadfly’

Black and white scribble art depicting a hand holding a calligraphy pen, scratching on a sheet of paper. Source:

by Ryan Cooper

The Gadfly, a novel by Ethel Lilian Voynich published in 1897 marked the birth of the  paramount socialist hero for the coming century. Not only would the novel go on to be one of the  most popular novels in the Soviet Union, selling over two and a half million copies; it would also go on to have great influence in China, Latin America, and the rest of the socialist world. The  novel would inspire new literature like Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered, giving birth to Soviet and Socialist Realism. The novel would have further influence in cultures so far  removed from its own, in times removed from its own, with its themes translated into music,  film, theater, and literature. Using Mikhail Bakhtin’s Chronotope (the idea that temporal-spatial setting and collection of events within a narrative can hold real world application and truth) and  Aristotle’s idea of character and hero, we can shed light on why the narrative had such a  profound impact on the socialist world despite being written in a time when socialism as we  know it had yet to be realized by the Bolshevik revolution. 

The Gadfly is a tragedy that follows the life of the protagonist Arthur Burton a student at  the theological seminary at Pisa, and the antagonist Montanelli a priest who is secretly the father  of Arthur Burton. The novel takes place in Italy during the Austrian occupation (Kingdom of  Lombardy–Venetia) and is about Arthur’s disillusionment in Christianity and his struggle for the liberation of Italy from its oppressors. Initially, The Gadfly had limited success after being  published in New York in 1897; it was not until later in the twentieth century that it gained massive popularity in Russia and China, popularity of which Voynich was not even aware of  until she started receiving letters from fans and visitors from the Soviet Union. So how is it, that  an American published novel written by an Irish born British novelist became so popular, and  what impact did it have on the Soviet Union and China? 

Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian literary theorist and formalist coined the literary term Chronotope, which is how language is used to describe space-time configurations within a  narrative. The Chronotope of a narrative is not bound to the written work but can be used as a  mode of historical truth and reader relation. The Gadfly might take place in a time and setting  different from that of the reader, but that does not mean it is in any way less impactful.  Bogdanov writes on the influence of fictional characters on children in the Soviet Union: “Our  young readers in choosing their heroes do not think of the age in which they lived or the country  to which they belonged. What was most important to them is that the hero have a noble heart and  fight for the freedom and good of his people.” (Bogdanov 162). Here Bogdanov knowingly or  not is expressing Bakhtin’s idea that the Chronotope transcends a narrative, and that can hold  truth in the real world of the reader, no matter the time and place the reader is living. We can also  see Aristotle’s idea of what makes a good character at play here. One of the reasons of its popularity as Bogdanov later explains, is that Arthur as the hero is true to life and very easy to  relate to, which is a major component of Aristotle’s view on what makes a character good. The  children of the Soviet Union in the mid-twentieth century were drawn to the novel because of the  truths that its Chronotope held for them. They saw a hero who stood up against his adversary to fight for the common good of his people, no doubt a very similar struggle to that of the Russian  revolution that the children would have been well versed in. 

While Bogdanov mostly focuses on the reaction of children to literary heroes, he does  give some thought on the influence that the hero of The Gadfly as a singular unit had on Soviet  literature during his time. Arthur Burton, the hero of the novel has the ability to stand  independent of the Chronotope and can be moved between other settings in space and time. Bogdanov states “The favourite hero of Nikolai Ostrovsky, the Soviet writer, was Voynich’s  Gadfly” (Bogdanov 162). Nikolai Ostrovsky went on to replicate Arthur in his own novel How the Steel Was Tempered, which is considered to be the defining novel of Soviet Realism. The  torch would only continue to be passed along, as again we see the same type of hero in other  Soviet novels (Bogdanov 163). 

The Soviet Union, however, was not the only country to have a fascination with  Voynich’s work. Her work saw great influence during the formative years of The Cultural  Revolution in China. Much like in the Soviet Union where children saw a real-to-life hero, the  children of The Cultural Revolution saw the idealistic hero who above all, even his life, placed his ideology. Once again, this hero was transplanted regardless of Chronotope within Chinese  literature. The very popular PRC novel The Song of Youth depicts a hero that is almost exact to  that of Arthur (Chen 74). There was a point, however when the novel was banned as part of the  policies on western literature practiced by “the gang of four”. Despite this ban the novel was still  popular and captive to the youth at the time (Eberlein). It was not until 1987 that the ban was  lifted and The Gadfly as well as other western titles flooded the Chinese literary market again. The Chronotope and hero type of The Gadfly seems to have a specific power in its ability to be  replicable across time and cultures.

While for the most part this novel has faded into history, there are still adaptations of the  novel being made; both in the Soviet Union and China, The Gadfly was adapted into other  mediums of storytelling, including music, film, plays, and radio telling. To date there have been  over twenty such adaptations from all around the world. Some of the most notable being Bernard  Shaw’s play adaptation, and Dimitri Shostakovich’s musical adaptation for a film by the name of  Ovod. The latest adaptation was in the form of a TV show by Chinese Director Wu Tianming in  2003, and while there might be very little interest in this novel today, that is not to say that its  influence has died out. The torch has been passed down through literature where the hero type  that is Arthur continues to live in modern works of literature and art. I think of today’s novels  and movies such as The Hunger Games that have similar Chronotopes and the same selfless hero  that captivates young audiences so well. The Gadfly, as Campbell would describe it, is a hero  with a thousand faces not bound by culture and time; The Gadfly is a story that has been told  many times and will only continue to be.

Work Cited 

Bernhardt, Lewis. “The Gadfly in Russia.” The Princeton University Library Chronicle,  vol. 28, no. 1, 1966, doi:10.2307/26409690. 

Bogdanov, Nikolai. “Literary Characters Influence Life of Soviet Children.” Journal of  Educational Sociology, vol. 35, no. 4, 1961, pp. 162–164., doi:10.2307/2264826. 

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press, 2004. 

Chen, Xiaomei. “”Playing in the Dirt”: Plays about Geologists and Memories of the Cultural  Revolution and the Maoist Era.” China Review, vol. 5, no. 2, 2005, pp. 65-95. 

Eberlein, Xujun. “In Which No Sex Takes Place.” AGNI Online, 5 Oct. 2018, 

McDougall, Bonnie. “The Reappearance Of Western Literature In China In The Seventies.” Modern Chinese Literature Newsletter, vol. 4, no. 2, 1978, pp. 8-14. 

Lawson, James. “Chronotope, Story, and Historical Geography: Mikhail Bakhtin and the Space Time of Narratives.” Antipode, vol. 43, no. 2, 2011, pp. 384–412., doi:10.1111/j.1467- 8330.2010.00853.x.

Voynich, Ethel Lilian. The Gadfly. Compass Circle, 2021. 

Weintraub, Stanley. “Bernard Shaw’s Unproduced Melodrama: The Gadfly, or The Son of the  Cardinal.” English Literature in Translation, vol. 62, 2019, pp. 526-550.

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We’re a group of graduate students studying English Literature and Language on a mission to discuss literature, provide access to those on the deafness and/or blindness spectrum, and rock mustachios.

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