Wide Reading: The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks is a novel that follows a 16 year old boy named Frank Cauldhame. Frank lives on an island off the coast of scotland with his father, Angus and his older brother, Eric. The family lives off the grid and don’t have any official record of existence. Angus is protective of Frank. He often insists that he cooks meals and such for Frank. Angus is secretive and keeps his study locked at all times. Frank routinely checks the door every time Angus is out. Frank assumes he his conducting experiments and such as Angus was a scientist before his retirement. Frank keeps secrets as well. He kills and mutilates animals often and uses them in strange and disturbing rituals. On the third floor of the house is a section of the loft which Frank calls the wasp factory. He built the Wasp factory with parts from an old town clock. Frank places a wasp inside a corridor that isn’t big enough for the wasp to fly in. The corridor is aligned the times on the clock and each one represents a different fate. The wasp crawls along the corridor wishing to find a way out. The wasp is killed by whatever trpa is set off. The wasp could killed by a spider, venus fly trap, eaten by wasps, burned etc. Frank then lets this dictate the same fate of someone he will kill. Between the age of 6 and 9, he had already killed three relatives. He kills a boy and a girl cousin and his little brother. Whatever the wasps fate was, is the way the person would be killed. With all this happening, Frank missed his brother, Eric, who had admitted to a mental institution in Scotland. Eric escapes at the beginning of the story and is not seen until the very end of the novel. Eric calls Frank multiple times throughout the story from pay phones. Eric was studying to become a medical student. He attended to a child with a birth defect where his skull was essentially missing. After pulling back the flap to child’s head he saw maggots eating the brain of the child which cause him to become insane. Frank at a young age had his genitals mauled by the family dog. Frank became angry to men who could procreate. Towards the end of the story Frank manages to sneak into the study and he finds genitals preserved in a jar and male hormones. Frank questions his father and he admits that Frank is a perfectly formed female and that he used the dog attack to rid his life of females forever. He insisted on making his meals just so he could add male hormones to Franks food to prevent menstrual cycles and stimulate beard growth. Frank had been taught to hate women by Angus. In the end Frank turned out to be a woman. The story ends with Frank finding Eric asleep on a hill near his home. Eric would awake to his little sister.  

“Sometimes I wish I had a cat. All I’ve ever had was a head, and that the seagulls took.” What makes this novel particularly gothic is the constant normalization of murder and death. Frank’s inner thoughts and actions are explained quite casually, as if his constant murdering of animals is a daily matter. Frank’s sacrifice poles are a good example of the representation of death. He performs a sort of ritual where he mounts heads and other random body parts of animals on poles. He uses this to scare off any unwanted visitors.

“My greatest enemies are Women and the Sea. These things I hate. Women because they are weak and stupid and live in the shadow of men and are nothing compared to them, and the Sea because it has always frustrated me, destroying what I have built, washing away what I have left, wiping clean the marks I have made.” The gothic protagonist and villain both are hard roles to assign at first. I believed the gothic villain was Frank at first. The constant murder and ideas expressed by his actions and thoughts really solidified my decision at first although as the twist came around at the end I assigned the role of gothic villain to Angus and the role of gothic antagonist to Frank. I believed that the dark personality of Frank put him in that role as the villian but after discovering that Angus had lied about who Frank was for all that time and what that did to Frank, really out shone Franks murder’s which could of been prevented if Angus had carried on with the existence of women in his life.

The wasp factory is a hard read and I struggled to make any sense of the themes used in it. The constant hinting at more secrets only to be left open at the end is quite frustrating and only adds on to the already unnerving and twisted themes embedded in the story. The wasp factory was said to be a ‘fraud’ by Frank although we never knew the true purpose of the wasp factory. Why would Angus want all females out of his life? Why does Angus insist on remaining out of any legal records? I will leave that to ponder.

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