The Wasp Factory

by

Iain Banks

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Ritual and Superstition Theme Analysis

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.
Ritual and Superstition  Theme Icon

Rituals help Frank Cauldhame, The Wasp Factory’s protagonist and narrator, navigate the world. Frank believes that he has no birth certificate, and as a result he does not legally exist. Because of this he is unable to go to school or integrate himself into the local community. Additionally, Frank believes he was castrated as a child, and feels himself to be unlike many of the local boys. This sense of distance, in addition to public ostracization of his family after his brother Eric’s institutionalization, causes Frank to feel cut off, both legally and socially, from the outside world. Given the loneliness and turmoil of his home life, Frank turns to rituals and superstition, which give him a sense of power and strength. However, while rituals help him with his day-to-day life, they also have led him to commit horrific acts of violence, even murdering three children because he feels a superstitious compulsion to do so. In the end, rituals and superstition restrict Frank’s ability to interact normally with the outside world, as his actions are governed not by a moral compass or any set of societal laws, but by his own invented rituals, and the wisdom of the Wasp Factory.

At the center of Frank’s world is a device he calls “the Wasp Factory.” He uses it to answer questions about the future. Frank’s entire life is centered around this factory, as well as around related shrines he calls Poles and the Bunker. The factory gives him a purpose, and his days are filled either preparing himself to ask it new questions, or attempting to uncover the meaning in its vague responses. The factory itself is an old, giant clock-face on which Frank periodically releases living wasps. The wasp wanders the face before eventually getting trapped in one of twelve chambers attached to the clock face, each of which can kill the insect in a unique way. Depending on which chamber the wasp chooses, and how the wasp dies, Frank can then make an inference about his future. For example, the wasp dies by fire multiple times in the novel, leading him to believe that there will be some kind of fire in his future—either one he must set, or one he must cautiously look out for. Frank explains that “The Wasp Factory is part of the pattern” of life and death. “Like life itself it is complicated,” and as a result Frank believes it “can answer every question because every question is a start looking for an end, and the Factory is about the End — death, no less.” Frank dismisses other forms of divination, remarking, “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.” Ironically, Frank believes his method of fortune telling to be logical and rational, whereas he rejects other methods, like rolling dice or examining the entrails of animals. However, to the reader, Frank’s reliance on the Wasp Factory seems just as illogical and irrational as other, more common, acts of prophecy.

Frank uses his rituals around the Wasp Factory to structure his life, but he also uses rituals and superstition as a justification for committing violent acts against the people, animals, and landscapes around him. Although Frank commits his first murder, that of his cousin Blyth, to get back at the boy for killing his pet rabbits, the rest of his murders are born out of an obsessive need for order and symmetry. Frank kills his little brother Paul because he thinks that “Paul, of course, was Saul,” the old family dog he believes castrated him. He explains, “That enemy was—must have been—cunning enough to transfer to the boy. That was why my father chose such a name for my new brother. It was just lucky that I spotted it at such an early age, or God knows what the child might have turned into, with Saul’s soul possessing him. But luck, the storm and I introduced him to the Bomb, and that settled his game.” Frank murders Paul by having his little brother hit an old bomb they find on the beach, which explodes and kills the child. Frank sees this act as rational and necessary, as he believes Paul is evil incarnate. Frank kills his little cousin Esmerelda for similarly convoluted reasons. Frank explains, “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.” In his mind, the murder is entirely justified, although readers will still be shocked and confused by his twisted logic. Frank feels that his murders have unbalanced the world, and since he hates women, he feels obligated to right that wrong. Frank cannot stand imbalances of any kind, and so this murder is a kind of obsessive compulsion—a need for ritual and order more than it is a need to kill for killing’s sake.

Frank believes that “all our lives are symbols. Everything we do is part of a pattern that 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.” Ironically, by creating his own rituals and his own patterns of thought and behavior, Frank feels as though he is taking greater control of his life. However, as the reader follows Frank through days and weeks of his life, it becomes clear that he is governed by his patterns as much as he governs them. What was initially a useful tool for freeing himself from a repressive society instead became its own complex and repressive belief system that traps him in a cycle of violent acts.

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Ritual and Superstition ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Wasp Factory related to the theme of Ritual and Superstition .
Chapter 1 Quotes

‘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.

Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

…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.

Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 45
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 5 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 117
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: