The Wasp Factory
|16 February 1984|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
The Wasp Factory is the first novel by Scottish writer Iain Banks, published in 1984. Before the publication of the The Wasp Factory Banks had written several science fiction novels, which had not been accepted for publication. Banks decided to try a more mainstream novel in the hopes that it would be more readily accepted, and wrote about a teenager with severe violence issues living on a remote Scottish island. According to Banks, this allowed him to treat the story as something resembling science fiction – the island could be envisaged as a planet, and Frank, the protagonist, almost as an alien. Following the publication and success of The Wasp Factory, Banks began to write full-time. Banks would go on to write several more novels before his death in 2013, including several acclaimed science fiction novels that formed the culture series.
The Wasp Factory is written from a first person perspective, told by seventeen-year-old Francis "Frank" Cauldhame, describing his childhood and all that remains of it. Frank observes many shamanistic rituals of his own invention, and it is soon revealed that Frank was the perpetrator of three deaths of children within his family before he reached the age of ten himself. As the novel develops, his brother's escape from a mental hospital and impending return lead on to a violent ending and a twist that undermines all that Frank believed about himself.
The book sold well, but was greeted with a mixture of acclaim and controversy, due to its gruesome depiction of violence. The Irish Times called it "a work of unparalleled depravity."
The story is told from the perspective of 17 year old, Frank Cauldhame. Frank lives on a small island with his father, who raised him without any record of his birth, so Frank’s existence is largely unknown. He has not seen his mother in many years.
Frank occupies his time with rituals and maintaining an array of weapons (a small catapult, pipe bombs and a crude flame thrower) for killing small animals around the island and the coast line, and building dams. He goes for long walks to patrol the island, and occasionally gets drunk with his only friend, a dwarf named Jamie, in the local pub. Otherwise Frank has almost no contact with the outside world. He is haunted by the memory of a dog attack in his youth, which resulted in the loss of his genitalia. He resents others for his impotence, particularly women. This is in part due to the mauling coinciding with the last time he saw his absentee mother, who had come back to the island to give birth to his younger brother, leaving immediately after.
His older brother Eric escapes a mental institution in the opening of the book, after having being arrested some years prior for setting fire to the town's dogs and terrorizing local children by force-feeding them maggots and worms. Eric often calls Frank from phone boxes to inform Frank of his progress back to the island. Eric is extremely erratic and their conversations invariably end badly, with Eric exploding in fits of rage. Frank is confused as to whether or not he is looking forward to seeing Eric, but it is clear Frank loves his brother dearly.
The “Wasp Factory” that the title refers to is a mechanism put together by Frank, made from a huge clock face encased in a glass box salvaged from the local dump. Behind each of the 12 numerals on the clock face is a trap which leads to a different ritual death (for example burning, crushing, or drowning in Frank's urine) for the wasp that Frank puts into it via the hole at the centre of the clock face. Frank believes the death 'chosen' by the wasp predicts something about the future. The Factory is in the house’s loft, which Frank’s father cannot access because of a leg injury. There are also “Sacrifice Poles”. The bodies and heads of animals, such as mice that Frank has killed, are stuck onto the poles for the purpose of attracting birds which will fly away and alert Frank of anybody approaching the island's borders. It is revealed that when he was a lot younger, he killed three of his relatives; two of his cousins and his younger brother. He also exhumed the skull of the dog that castrated him and uses it as part of his rituals.
Eric is described as having been extremely sensitive before the incident that drove him mad: a tragic case of neglect in a hospital where Eric was a volunteer when studying to become a doctor. While attempting to feed a brain-damaged newborn with acalvaria, Eric notes that the child is unresponsive and smiling, despite usually appearing expressionless. The child’s skull is held together by a metal plate over its head. Eric checks underneath the plate to find the child's exposed brain tissue infested and being consumed by day-old maggots.
Frank’s father is distant and spends most of his time in his study, which he keeps locked at all times. Frank longs to know what is inside the study and attempts to gain access to it each time his father leaves the house. Frank is used to being lied to by his father, who seemingly often does it purely for his own amusement or interest.
At the end of the novel Frank is alerted of Eric's imminent return when he sees a dog that has been burned alive and discovers Eric’s camp site; This knowledge incites Frank’s father to get drunk and then forget to conceal the keys to his study, where Frank discovers male hormone drugs, tampons and what appears to be the remains of his own genitals in a jar. Frank, who hates women, assumes that his findings mean that his father is actually female. During the ensuing confrontation with his father, Eric returns and attempts to destroy the house and island with explosives and fire but is not successful. After Eric flees, the father explains that it was Frank who was born a female; the hormones had been fed to him by his father since the dog attack in an experiment to see whether Frank would transition from female to male. The remains of his genitals were fake and it is suggested that his father’s reasoning for doing this was to distance himself from the women he felt had ruined his life.
In the closing pages Frank finds Eric, half asleep, seemingly calm. Frank sits with him and considers his life up to this point and whether he should leave the island.
Literary significance and criticism
The book was initially greeted with a mixture of acclaim and controversy, due to its gruesome depiction of violence. While this is mostly against animals, Frank also recollects killing three younger children when a child himself. The murders are described in an honest and matter-of-fact way, often with grotesque humour. The Irish Times called it "a work of unparalleled depravity."
The novel works largely as a Bildungsroman as it deals with Frank's ability to deal with events going on around him as he has grown up. In terms of genre it fits into the Gothic Literature due to its exploration of death, mortality and arguably presentations of the monstrous. It also deals with Banks' sceptical attitudes towards organised religion. Frank is obsessive about ritual and the form of things; the Wasp Factory and the Sacrifice Poles are protective talismans, and divinatory in intent.
A 1997 poll of over 25,000 readers of The Independent listed The Wasp Factory as one of the top 100 books of the 20th century.
- Banks, Iain (1998-07-12). "Out of this world". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 January 2015.
- No Sartre, no Lessing, no Mailer: Frodo the hobbit beats them all - The Independent
- Iain Banks discusses The Wasp Factory on the BBC World Book Club
- Iain Banks discusses The Wasp Factory at the Guardian Book Club
- Iain Banks writing about the creation of The Wasp Factory for the Guardian