Throughout The Wasp Factory, members of the central Cauldhame family attempt to exert control over each other and over the wider world. Angus attempts to control his children through the strict rules he imposes on them, and the limitations he places on where they are allowed to go in his household, whereas Eric and Frank both enjoy exerting their power through acts of violence on the landscape, nearby animals, and other children. However, although Frank spends much of the novel setting off bombs, building dams, torturing rabbits, and generally causing mayhem, in the book’s final pages Frank realizes that he has been using violence to compensate for his (perceived) castration, attempting to destroy because he felt he would never be able to (pro)create. Violence, then, is an ineffective means to an end—the end being a sense of personal fulfillment and self-control. Although author Iain Banks spends much of the novel describing violent acts committed by his protagonists, the novel is intended to be an indictment of such behavior. In a 2008 essay in the Guardian, Banks notes that he intends the book to be an “antimilitarist work,” that nonetheless says “something about the stated and real reasons for brutality.” Considering this, although the novel graphically portrays various acts of both physical and emotional violence, it does so with the intention of showing the futility of such methods of control. As Frank eventually realizes, violence and power are not so closely linked, and his own self-confidence and sense of self-worth cannot only come from destroying other people, places, and things.
Frank, Eric, and Angus all have different types of violence that they use to control the world around them, and each uses violence for different reasons. They are all trying to gain some kind of control and personal power, but their methods and motivations vary widely. Frank and Angus both engage in various methods of non-violent control—most notably through controlling information and names. Angus controlled Frank as a child by home schooling him, and intentionally feeding him misinformation that, until Frank had access to outside resources, kept the child reliant on his father for any and all new information about the world. Additionally, Angus lied to Frank and told him he didn’t have a birth certificate, preventing him from going to school or ever fully integrating into the outside world. Most damning, however, is Angus’ control of Frank’s gender—Angus has fed Frank, who was born Frances, male hormones for the past thirteen years, secretly treating his daughter as a son. Frank, meanwhile, gains power from giving (often secret) names to objects and places. He ritualistically names his new catapult, for example, but does not reveal the name, explaining, “the catapult ought to be safe so long as nobody knew its name,” believing that the ritual of imbuing it with a personality gives it, and him by extension, additional violent power. Similarly, Frank names the landscape after violent acts he has committed there, claiming the land he lives upon through the death of others who formerly shared it with him. The “Bomb Circle” is where he blew up his little brother Paul with a bomb. “Black Destroyer Hill” is where a rabbit broke his slingshot, Black Destroyer, and where he massacred a family of rabbits in retaliation. Frank often complains that he is not allowed into his father’s study, or the basement of their home. Angus locks the door to both rooms in an attempt to control Frank’s access to the explosives locked in the basement, and the knowledge about Frank’s past (specifically the secret that Frank was not castrated, but instead born female) hidden in the study.
Frank and Eric both enjoy manipulating the world around them physically. This behavior runs the gamut from digging dams to murdering animals and people. Frank particularly enjoys manipulating the landscape by building dams. Although this isn’t an explicitly aggressive behavior, it is nonetheless about control. Early in the novel, Frank decides that, instead of playing war, he will build a dam. That this is an alternative to an explicitly violent game suggests it is also about a kind of violence. Frank likes building dams as a way to temporarily subvert the power of nature. Frank understands that “You can never really win against the water,” but enjoys “the elegance of the compromise you strike between where the water wants to go…and what you want to do with it.” Still, as mature as this philosophy sounds, Frank also likes to build miniature villages below the dam, which will eventually be destroyed when the dam breaks. When this occurs, Frank has “a gorgeous feeling of excitement” in his stomach “as I thrilled to the watery havoc about me,” reveling in the violence and destruction of these model cities and imaginary people.
Eric enjoys setting dogs on fire, as well as harassing children and attempting to feed them maggots. Frank believes Eric hates dogs because Eric is attempting to get back at Old Saul, the family dog that both brothers believe castrated Frank as a child. Eric’s violence, then, is an attempt to control, or rewrite the past. Frank, meanwhile, most frequently turns to violence as an act of direct retaliation. One of the most shocking acts of violence Frank commits is the massacre of a warren of rabbits. He wipes out the colony with bombs and fire after one rabbit attacks him and breaks his precious slingshot. Similarly, his first murder is an act of retaliation. He murders his cousin Blyth after Blyth kills his and Eric’s pet rabbits. Frank’s other murders—of children and of animals—are more related to ritual or superstition. He believes Paul was a reincarnation of the family dog, Old Saul, and therefore must die. He felt obligated to kill Esmerelda because she was a girl, and her death was necessary to help correct the gender imbalance of the previous murders. Many of his animal murders are seen in similarly “practical” terms. When Angus remarks one day “I hope you weren’t out killing any of God’s creatures,” Frank thinks to himself, “Of course I was killing things. How the hell am I supposed to get heads and bodies for the Poles and the Bunker if I don’t kill things?” In addition to the Wasp Factory, Frank has several other shrines set up across the island where he lives, all of which require the parts of dead animals to function. He sees their maintenance as essential to his survival, and therefore the murder of animals is merely a practical, necessary task.
Although violence plays such a large role in The Wasp Factory, it rarely has its desired effect long-term. Angus, Frank, and Eric often experience momentary control or peace, but they are unable to permanently alter each other’s behaviors, or the events of the past. Frank’s castration cannot be undone by the murder of dogs, or by the murder of Paul, who Frank believes to be a reincarnation of Old Saul. Angus’s attempts to control his children, specifically Frank, by limiting his access to knowledge and by feeding him male hormones, eventually backfires. Frank finds out the truth, but not before he has lost much of his faith and trust in his father, permanently damaging their relationship. Frank believes that the Wasp Factory, the Bunker, and the Poles, all elements of his complicated fortune-telling philosophy, can tell him about the future and protect him if he sacrifices enough animals to the cause. However, it is never clear that his rituals are anything other than superstition. As a result, dozens if not hundreds of animals have died for nothing.
The Wasp Factory spends many pages outlining the struggles for control and power in which its protagonists are engaged. Sometimes those struggles are bloody and violent, while other times they are primarily psychological. Almost always, however, they backfire or are in vain. By showing violent controlling act after violent controlling act, most ending without the desired outcome, Banks argues that violence, whether physical or psychological, committed against other people, animals, or the landscape itself is an ineffective method of control. In fact, the whole idea of trying to control someone or something else through violence is generally demonstrated to be ineffective. The best relationships in the novel are instead those that rely on communication, such as the one between Jamie and Frank, and on mutual trust and respect, as opposed to a constant desire to dominate and control.
Control, Violence, and Power ThemeTracker
Control, Violence, and Power Quotes in The Wasp Factory
‘I hope you weren’t out killing any of God’s creatures.’
I shrugged at him again. Of course I was out killing things. How the hell am I supposed to get heads and bodies for the Poles and the Bunker if I don’t kill things? There just aren’t enough natural deaths. You can’t explain that sort of thing to people, though.
‘Sometimes I think you’re the one who should be in the hospital, not Eric.’ He was looking at me from under his dark brows, his voice low. Once, that sort of talk would have scared me, but not now. I’m nearly seventeen, and not a child. Here in Scotland I’m old enough to get married without my parent’s permission, and have been for a year. There wouldn’t be much point to me getting married perhaps — I’ll admit that — but the principle is there.
Besides, I’m not Eric; I’m me and I’m here and that’s all there is to it. I don’t bother people and they had best not bother me if they know what’s good for them. I don’t go giving people presents of burning dogs, or frighten the local toddlers with handfuls of maggots and mouthfuls of worms. The people in the town may say ‘Oh, he’s not all there, you know,’ but that’s just their little joke (and sometimes, to rub it in, they don’t point to their heads as they say it); I don’t mind. I’ve learned to live with my disability, and learned to live without other people, so it’s no skin off my nose.
I thought again of the Sacrifice Poles; more deliberately this time, picturing each one in turn, remembering their positions and their components, seeing in my mind what those sightless eyes looked out to, and flickering through each view like a security guard changing cameras on a monitor screen. I felt nothing amiss; all seemed well. My dead sentries, those extensions of me which came under my power through the simple but ultimate surrender of death, sensed nothing to harm me or the island.
I opened my eyes and put the bedside light back on. I looked at myself in the mirror on the dressing-table over on the other side of the room. I was lying on top of the bed-covers, naked apart from my underpants.
I’m too fat. It isn’t that bad, and it isn’t my fault – but, all the same, I don’t like the way I’d like to look. Chubby, that’s me. Strong and fit, but still too plump. I want to look dark and menacing; the way I ought to look, the way I should look, the way I might have looked if I hadn’t had my little accident. Looking at me, you’d never guess I’d killed three people. It isn’t fair.
I realise that you can never really win against the water; it will always triumph in the end, seeping and soaking and building up and undermining and overflowing. All you can really do is construct something that will divert it or block its way for a while; persuade it to do something it doesn’t really want to do. The pleasure comes from the elegance of the compromise you strike between where the water wants to go (guided by gravity and the medium it’s moving over) and what you want to do with it.
Actually I think life has few pleasures to compare with dam-building. Give me a good broad beach with a reasonable slope and not too much seaweed, and a fair-sized stream, and I’ll be happy all day, any day.
…it was a Sign. I was sure of that. The whole fraught episode must signify something. My automatic response might just have had something to do with the fire that the Factory had predicted, but deep inside I knew that that wasn’t all there was to it, and that there was more to come. The sign was in the whole thing, not just the unexpected ferocity of the buck I’d killed, but also in my furious, almost unthinking response and the fate of the innocent rabbits who took the brunt of my wrath.
It also meant something looking back as well as forward. The first time I murdered it was because of rabbits meeting a fiery death, and meeting that fiery death from the nozzle of a Flame-thrower virtually identical to the one I had used to exact my revenge on the warren. It was all too close and perfect. Events were shaping up faster and worse than I could have expected. I was in danger of losing control of the situation. The Rabbit Grounds – that supposed happy hunting-ground – had shown it could happen.
From the smaller to the greater, the patterns always hold true, and the Factory has taught me to watch out for them and respect them.
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. And I’m not at all sure the Wind is blameless, either.
The Sea is a sort of mythological enemy, and I make what you might call sacrifices to it in my soul, fearing it a little, respecting it as you’re supposed to, but in many ways treating it as an equal. It does things to the world, and so do I; we should both be feared. Women…well, women are a bit too close for comfort as far as I’m concerned. I don’t even like having them on the island, not even Mrs Clamp, who comes every week on a Saturday to clean the house and deliver our supplies. She’s ancient, and sexless the way the very old and the very young are, but she’ll still been a woman, and I resent that, for my own good reason.
I went into town that day, bought an extra plastic model of a Jaguar, made the kit up that afternoon and ceremonially blew it to pieces on the roof of the Bunker with a small pipe-bomb. Two weeks later a Jaguar crashed into the sea of Nairn, though the pilot ejected in time. I’d like to think the Power was working then, but I suspect it was coincidence; high-performance jets crash so often it was no real surprise my symbolic and their real destruction came within a fortnight of each other.
The rocks of the Bomb Circle usually get me thinking and this time was no exception, especially considering the way I’d lain down inside them like some Christ or something, opened to the sky dreaming of death. Well, Paul went about as quickly as you can go; I was certainly humane that time. Blyth had lots of time to realise what was happening, jumping about the Snake Park screaming as the frantic and enraged snake bit his stump repeatedly, and little Esmerelda must have had some inkling what was going to happen to her as she was slowly blown away.
My brother Paul was five when I killed him. I was eight. It was over two years after I had subtracted Blyth with an adder that I found an opportunity to get rid of Paul. Not that I bore him any personal ill-will; it was simply that I knew he couldn’t stay. I knew I’d never be free of the dog until he was gone (Eric, poor well-meaning bright but ignorant Eric, thought I still wasn’t, and I just couldn’t tell him why I was).
I killed little Esmerelda because I felt I owed it to myself and to the world in general. I had, after all, accounted for two male children and thus done womankind something of a statistical favour. If I really had the courage of my convictions, I reasoned, I ought to redress the balance at least slightly. My cousin was simply the easiest and most obvious target.
Again, I bore her no personal ill-will. Children aren’t real people, in the sense that they are not small males and females but a separate species which will (probably) grow into one or the other in due time.
Before I realised the birds were my occasional allies, I used to do unkind things to them: fish for them, shoot them, tie them to stakes at low tide, put electrically detonated bombs under their nests, and so on.
My favourite game was capturing two using bait and a net, then tying them together. Usually they were gulls and I tied thick orange nylon fishing-line to a leg each, then sat on a dune and watched. Sometimes I would have a gull and a crow but, whether they were the same species or not, they quickly found out they couldn’t fly properly – though the twine was long enough in theory – and ended up (after a few hilariously clumsy aerobatics) fighting.
With one dead, though, the survivor – usually injured – wasn’t really any better off, attached to a heavy corpse instead of a live opponent. I have seen a couple of determined ones peck the leg off their defeated adversary, but most were unable, or didn’t think of it, and got caught by the rats during the night.
I had other games, but that one always struck me as one of my more mature inventions; symbolic somehow, and with a nice blend of callousness and irony.
‘The madder people. A lot of them seem to be leaders of countries or religions or armies. The real loonies.’
‘Aye, I suppose.’ I said thoughtfully, watching the battle on the screen upside down. ‘Or maybe they’re the only sane ones. After all, they’re the ones with all the power and riches. They’re the ones who get everybody else to do what they want them to do... So, given things being the way they are, who’s to say they’re the loonies because they don’t do things the way Joe Punter thinks they ought to be done? If they thought the same way as Joe Punter, they’d be Joe Punter, and somebody else would be having all the fun.’
‘Survival of the fittest.’
All our lives are symbols. Everything we do is part of a pattern we have at least some say in. The strong make their own patterns and influence other people’s, the weak have their courses mapped out for them. The weak and the unlucky, and the stupid. The Wasp Factory is part of the pattern because it is a part of life and – even more so – part of death. Like life it is complicated, so all the components are there. The reason it can answer questions is because every question is a start looking for an end, and the Factory is about the End – death, no less. Keep your entrails and sticks and dice and books and birds and voices and pendants and all the rest of that crap; I have the Factory, and it’s about now and the future; not the past.
… I would try to contact Eric through the skull of Old Saul. We are brothers, after all, even if only half so, and we are both men, even if I am only half so. At some deep level we understand each other, even though he is mad and I am sane. We even had that link I had not thought of until recently, but which might come in useful now: we have both killed, and used our heads to do it.
It occurred to me then, as it has before, that that is what men are really for. Both sexes can do one thing specially well; women can give birth and men can kill. We – I consider myself an honorary man – are the harder sex. We strike out, push through, thrust and take. The fact that it is only an analogue of all this sexual terminology I am capable of does not discourage me. I can feel it in my bones, in my uncastrated genes. Eric must respond to that.
…[Eric] had been too much for me. The conflagration in his head was just too strong for anybody sane to cope with. It had a lunatic strength of total commitment about it which only the profoundly mad are continually capable of, and the most ferocious soldiers and most aggressive sportsmen able to emulate for a while. Every particle of Eric’s brain was concentrated on his mission of returning and setting fire, and no normal brain – not even mine, which was far from normal and more powerful than most – could match that marshaling of forces. Eric was committed to total War, a Jihad; he was riding the Divine Wind to at least his own destruction, and there was nothing I could do about it this way.
I remember I used to despise sheep for being so profoundly stupid. I’d seen them eat and eat and eat, I’d watched dogs outsmart whole flocks of them, I’d chased them and laughed at the stupid way they ran, watched them get themselves into all sorts of stupid, tangled situations, and I’d thought they quite deserved to end up as mutton, and that being used as wool-making machines was too good for them. It was years, and a long slow process, before I eventually realised just what sheep really represented: not their own stupidity, but our power, our avarice and egotism.
After I’d come to understand evolution and know a little about history and farming, I saw that the thick white animals I laughed at for following each other around and getting caught in bushes were the product of generations of farmers as much as generations of sheep; we made them, we moulded them from the wild, smart survivors that were their ancestors so that they would become docile, frightened, stupid, tasty wool-producers. We didn’t want them to be smart, and to some extent their aggression and their intelligence went together. Of course, the rams are brighter, but even they are demeaned by the idiotic females they have to associate with and inseminate.
The same principle applies to chickens and cows and almost anything we’ve been able to get our greedy, hungry hands on for long enough. It occasionally occurs to me that something the same might have happened to women but, attractive though the theory might be, I suspect I’m wrong.
I want to laugh or cry or both, as I sit here, thinking about my own life, my three deaths. Four deaths now, in a way, now that my father’s truth has murdered what I was.
But I am still me; I am the same person, with the same memories and the same deeds done, the same (small) achievements, the same (appalling) crimes to my name.
Perhaps I murdered for revenge in each case, jealously exacting – through the only potency at my command – a toll from those who passed within my range; my peers who each would otherwise have grown into the one thing I could never become: an adult.
Lacking, as one might say, one will, I forged another; to lick my own wound, I cut them off, reciprocating in my angry innocence the emasculation I could not then fully appreciate, but somehow – through the attitudes of others perhaps – sensed as an unfair, irrecoverable loss. Having no purpose in life or procreation, I invested all my worth in that grim opposite, and so found a negative and a negation of the fecundity only others could lay claim to… I would find or make my own weapons, and my victims would be those most recently produced by the one act I was incapable of; my equals in that, while they possessed the potential for generation, they were at that point no more able to perform the required act than I was. Talk about penis envy.
Now it turns out to have been for nothing. There was no revenge that needed taking, only a lie, a trick that should have been exposed, a disguise which even from the inside I should have seen through, but in the end did not want to. I was proud; eunuch but unique; a fierce and noble presence in my lands, a crippled warrior, a fallen prince…
Now I find I was the fool all along.
Believing in my great hurt, my literal cutting off from society’s mainland, it seems to me that I took life in a sense too seriously, and the lives of others, for the same reason, too lightly. The murders were my own conception; my sex. The Factory was my attempt to construct life, to replace the involvement which otherwise I did not want.
Well, it is always easier to succeed at death.
Inside this greater machine, things are not quite so cut and dried (or cut and pickled) as they have appeared in my experience. Each of us, in our own personal Factory, may believe we have stumbled down one corridor, and that our fate is sealed and certain (dream or nightmare, humdrum or bizarre, good or bad), but a word, a glance, a slip – anything can change that, alter it entirely, and our marble hall becomes a gutter, our rat-maze a golden path. Our destination is the same in the end, but our journey – part chosen, part determined – is different for us all, and changes even as we live and grow. I thought one door had snicked shut behind me years ago; in fact I was still crawling about the face. Now the door closes, and my journey begins.