The Wasp Factory

by

Iain Banks

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Themes and Colors
Ritual and Superstition  Theme Icon
Control, Violence, and Power Theme Icon
Family and Friendship  Theme Icon
Sanity and Insanity  Theme Icon
Sexism and Gender Roles Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Wasp Factory, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Family and Friendship  Theme Icon

The protagonists of The Wasp Factory, half-siblings Frank and Eric, and their father, Angus, are part of a tight family unit. Although Eric has been locked away in a mental institution for many years, he casts a shadow over Frank and Angus, and much of their lives are centered on memories of him and anxiety around his recent escape. Although Angus and Eric’s internal lives do not receive much space in the novel, Frank, the narrator, is shown to also have a single important friend, Jamie, a man with dwarfism who lives in the nearby town. Frank’s relationships with these three men are the center of his emotional and social life, and although in many ways he is antisocial and arguably sociopathic—as seen in his treatment of women, animals, and strangers—these few close relationships provide him with stability and comfort. The Wasp Factory argues that even the strangest, most violent people are capable of giving and receiving love and affection, and in fact often rely upon these close relationships to retain any sense of normalcy.

The bonds of family and friendship are important to the novel’s central characters. When their relationships are going well, the protagonists look out for each other, and improve the quality of one another’s lives. Frank has a single friend, Jamie, and although Frank is rarely seen making sacrifices for other people, he genuinely cares for Jamie, and often takes steps to help his friend. For example, they often go to music concerts together, and Frank always lets Jamie sit on his shoulders. Additionally, although Frank hates talking to and interacting with women, he will stand near them for Jamie’s sake, letting his friend remain on his shoulders so he can talk to girls face to face. Jamie often returns the favor. In one particular scene Frank becomes incredibly drunk, and Jamie helps take care of him, leaving a conversation with a woman he is interested in to chase Frank down, and holding him as he vomits on a city street. Frank also discusses his relationship with his brother, Eric. Although Eric is violent and insane, in the end, Frank continues to love and support him. He explains, “he was my brother, and I still loved him in a way. I loved him despite his alternation the way, I suppose, he had loved me despite my disability. That feeling of wanting to protect, I suppose, which women are supposed to feel for the young and men are meant to feel for women.” Frank appreciates that his family and single friend love and care for him in spite of his castration, which he sees as a disability. In turn, he loves them, despite what he sees as their imperfections.

Love between family members is also not always a positive thing. It can be a source of anxiety, or it can lead to dangerous behavior, as individuals attempt to get each other to prove their love, or else act irrationally, ostensibly in the best interests of their loved ones. For example, although Frank loves Eric, Eric cannot always tell. After he has escaped from the asylum where he was imprisoned, he calls home to talk to his brother. He frequently questions their relationship, complaining that their father no longer loves him, but asking Frank to prove his loyalty. In one phone call home Eric complains, “He [Angus] doesn’t love me. You love me, though, don’t you, h’m?” The idea that his brother has somehow moved on or forgotten about him is incredibly stressful to Eric, and further unhinges the already unstable young man. Similarly, although Angus loved his sons, his love is toxic. He cares for them, but he also controls and manipulates them. Late in the novel, when Frank realizes that he was born a girl named Frances, he sees that his father has been experimenting on him his entire life. This behavior is essentially abusive, but it stems from a desire to keep Frank close to him, and reliant on him.

Although Frank does have a handful of close relationships with people that he genuinely cares about and actively makes sacrifices for, just because someone is related to him does not mean that he will give them any special treatment. Physical or biological proximity are not enough to guarantee that Frank will care for any given person. Instead, Frank has a hierarchy of people that he cares about, and will protect those in his inner circle from anyone he perceives as an outsider, even if that outsider is technically his relative. Significantly, the three children Frank murdered were all related to him. However, in each case he had a justification. Frank kills his cousin Blyth after Blyth sets his and Eric’s pet rabbits on fire. This upsets Eric especially, and Frank recalls, “He cried like a girl. I wanted to kill Blyth there and then” for what “he’d done to Eric, my brother.” Frank cares more about Eric’s feelings than about Blyth’s life, and, therefore, Blyth must die. Frank also murders his little brother, Paul. Although Frank understands that Paul is his brother, he feels none of the love for him that he feels for Eric. Instead, Frank associates Paul with his castration (because he believes Paul is the incarnation of Old Saul, the family dog) and so Frank thinks that, if he is to move on with his life, Paul has to die.  Frank also hates his mother, Agnes. This is related to a more general hatred of women, but also his belief that she indirectly caused both his castration (by giving birth and distracting his father, therefore giving Old Saul time to bite him) and injured his father for life (by running over his leg on her motorbike).

Even the disturbed protagonists of The Wasp Factory need love and affection. Though Frank and Eric exhibit sociopathic behavior, they enjoy the company of their friends and family, and require the help and attention of the ones they love. Although Banks never implies that a more robust social network would prevent Eric and Frank from committing such violent acts, it is clear that they are soothed by certain interpersonal connections, and that their violence is often a tool used in service of protecting or avenging each other, a twisted way of demonstrating their love and care.

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Family and Friendship ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Family and Friendship appears in each chapter of The Wasp Factory. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Family and Friendship Quotes in The Wasp Factory

Below you will find the important quotes in The Wasp Factory related to the theme of Family and Friendship .
Chapter 2 Quotes

Eric in particular was very upset. He cried like a girl. I wanted to kill Blyth there and then; the hiding he got from his father, my dad’s brother James, was not enough as far as I was concerned, not for what he’d done to Eric, my brother. Eric was inconsolable, desperate with grief because he had made the thing Blyth had used to destroy our beloved pets. He always was a bit sentimental, always the sensitive one, the bright one; until his nasty experience everybody was sure he would go far. Anyway, that was the start of the Skull Grounds, the area of the big, old, partially earthed-over dune behind the house where all our pets went when they died. The burned rabbits started that. Old Saul was before them, but that was just a one-off thing.

Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

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).

Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

‘I’ve told you; he’s crazy but he’s very cunning. He’s not stupid. He was always very bright, right from the start. He was reading early and getting all his relations and uncles and aunts to say “Och, they’re old so young these days” and things like that before I was even born.’

‘But he is insane, all the same.’

‘That’s what they say, but I don’t know.’

‘What about the dogs? And the maggots?’

‘OK, that looks pretty crazy, I’ll admit, but sometimes I think maybe he’s up to something, maybe he’s not really crazy after all. Perhaps he just got fed up acting normal and decided to act crazy instead, and they locked him up because he went too far.’

‘And he’s mad at them,’ Jamie grinned, drinking his pint as I annihilated various dodging, mulit-coloured spacecraft on the screen. I laughed. ‘Yeah, if you like. Oh, I don’t know. Maybe he really is crazy. Maybe I am. Maybe everybody is. Or at least all of my family.’

Now you’re talking.’

I looked up at him for a second, then smiled. ‘It does occur to me sometimes. My dad’s an eccentric…I suppose I am, too.’ I shrugged, concentrated on the space battle again. ‘But it doesn’t bother me. There are a lot madder people about the place.’

Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

… 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.

Related Symbols: Old Saul’s Skull
Page Number: 118
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

We played some stories out: brave soldiers in the dunes and fighting, winning and fighting and fighting and sometimes dying. Those were the only times he deliberately hurt me, when his stories required his own heroic death and I would take it all too seriously as he lay expiring on the grass or the sands, having just blown up the bridge or the dam or the enemy convoy and like as not saved me from death, too; I would choke back tears and punch him lightly as I tried to change the story myself and he refused, slipping away from me and dying; too often dying.

When he had his migraines – sometimes lasting days – I lived on the edge, taking cool drinks and some food up to the darkened room on the second floor, creeping in, standing and shaking sometimes if he moaned and shifted on the bed. I was wretched while he suffered, and nothing meant anything; the games and the stories seemed stupid and pointless, and only throwing stones at bottles or seagulls made much sense. I went out fishing for gulls, determined things other than Eric should suffer: when he recovered it was like him coming back for the summer all over again, and I was irrepressible.

Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis: