Brothers Frank and Eric Cauldhame both exhibit behaviors far beyond the bounds of acceptable human conduct. Frank has murdered three children, frequently tortures animals, and believes he can tell the future through interactions with wasps, while Eric likes to set dogs on fire, and was once institutionalized for trying to feed maggots to local children. Their behavior is objectively abnormal, when not actively criminal, but Frank’s unreliable though unemotional and rational narration depicts his behavior especially as sane and reasonable. He provides context for his and Eric’s actions, and can point to the root causes for many of their strangest behaviors, causing the reader to wonder about the boundaries of sanity versus insanity, and who is truly sane or insane. In a 2008 reflection on his novel in the Guardian, author Ian Banks notes that he began writing the book as “something resembling [science fiction]. The island could be envisaged as a planet, and Frank, the protagonist, almost as an alien.” The book was written in the “write-what-you-know school but with a dose of…hyperbole,” by which he meant that violence and horror were exaggerated, but born out of the more recognizable violence and experimentation of childhood. As a result, the novel calls into question the definition and spectrum of madness, asking what behavior truly qualifies as insane, and who has the right to apply that definition to another person.
Frank, the narrator, makes himself out to be entirely sane. It is up to the reader to interpret his actions as normal or abnormal, because Frank always frames himself as logical and rational. Much of Frank’s behavior is clearly insane. He believes that a system of Poles (animal skulls mounted on sticks), his Bunker (a room full of animal skulls and candles where he holds soothsaying rituals), and the Wasp Factory (a maze-like clock that tells the future based on how the wasps who navigate its surface die) can help him tell the future. He has murdered three of his relatives. He enjoys torturing animals. Still, he offers the reader justifications for his actions, and the book acts as a kind of explanation, if not apology, for a lifetime of aberrant behavior. Frank sees the fact that he has never been institutionalized as a sign that he is less disturbed than his brother. Early in the novel he notes, “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 say ‘Oh, he’s not all there, you know,’ but that’s just their little joke…I don’t mind.” However, Frank has murdered three people, whereas Eric, although clearly disturbed, primarily killed animals and only tormented the living. Still, it is important for Frank to juxtapose himself with his brother and ignore outside indications that they might be equally insane, even if Frank has more self-control and discretion.
Eric does not have the benefit of explaining his behavior to readers as a first-person narrator. Instead, his life is relayed via Frank, who is also possibly insane, and who is also interested in making himself look rational in contrast to Eric, who he believes has entirely lost his mind. Eric is as interesting a foil to Frank as he is a character on his own. Many of the descriptions of his madness are set in contrast to either Eric’s own sane childhood, or else Frank’s self-perceived sanity. Unlike Frank, Eric spent most of his life as an ordinary, non-violent child. Frank remembers him as the “clever, kind, excitable boy he had been,” contrasting him to who he is now, “a force of fire and disruption…like a mad angel, head swarming with echoing screams of madness and delusion.” Eric, who was once an ordinary child turned doctor in training, faced a series of setbacks in medical school. Already struggling with drinking and a recent heartbreak, Eric was completely broken by the death of a toddler under his care, whose brain, he discovered, had been eaten by maggots. After this, Frank reports, Eric was sent “flying back out to something else: an amalgam of both his earlier self (but satanically reversed) and a more worldly-wise man, an adult damaged and dangerous, confused and pathetic and manic all at once. He reminded me of a hologram, shattered; with the whole image contained within one spear-like shard, at once splinter and entirety.” Although Frank presents Eric’s breakdown in different ways, this description suggests that this kind of collapse could happen to anyone—the seeds of his insanity were in him all along, and were released by repeated emotional trauma, which created not a new personality, but an inverse of his existing one. Later in the novel Frank tries to literally get into Eric’s mind, projecting himself telepathically into the head of his brother. While there, Frank senses “a lunatic strength of total commitment…which only the mad are continually capable of.” He believes “no normal brain…could match that marshaling of forces,” and though he acknowledges that his own brain is “far from normal,” he still sees himself as far removed from Eric’s lunacy. Yet even as Frank calls his own brother insane, he also defends him from attacks by the public. He explains Eric to Jamie one evening, relating, “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…” Jamie responds, “But he is insane, all the same,” and Frank counters, “That’s what they say, but I don’t know.” Although his behavior “looks pretty crazy…sometimes I think maybe he’s up to something, maybe he’s not really crazy at 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.” In contrast to other theories regarding Eric’s madness, here Frank suggests that Eric was never truly crazy at all. He seems to define insanity as a lack of control, and argues that Eric remained sane because he remained in control of his behavior, deciding to act out as a choice. This idea likely appeals to Frank because he feels that his own abnormal actions are also choices, not compulsions, which would allow him to continue to conceptualize himself as merely strange, and not insane.
By investigating the idea of sanity and insanity, Banks first calls into question the rigidity of those categories. He shows how Eric transformed from a kind, altruistic child and doctor to a violent sadist, and how in that transformation he retained some aspects of his personality, as well as his core devotion to his family, and specifically his brother, Frank. Additionally, by setting up Frank and Eric as foils, the reader is deprived of any objectively sane characters who can function as a litmus test for sanity. Instead, Frank and Eric are both seen to act rationally occasionally and irrationally occasionally, blurring the borders of the traditional sane/insane dichotomy.
Sanity and Insanity ThemeTracker
Sanity and Insanity 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 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’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.’
‘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.
…[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.
It always annoyed me that Eric went crazy. Although it wasn’t an on-off thing, sane one minute, mad the next, I don’t think there is much doubt that the incident with the smiling child triggered something in Eric that led, almost inevitably, to his fall. Something in him could not accept what had happened, could not fit in what he had seen with the way he thought things ought to be…
Whatever it was that disintegrated in Eric then, it was a weakness, a fundamental flaw that a real man should not have had. Women, I know from watching hundreds – maybe thousands – of films and television programmes, cannot withstand really major things happening to them; they get raped or their loved one dies, and they go to pieces, go crazy and commit suicide, or just pine away until they die. Of course, I realise that not all of them will react that way, but obviously it’s the rule, and the ones who don’t obey it are in the minority.
There must be a few strong women, women with more man in their character than most, and I suspect that Eric was the victim of a self with just a little too much of the woman in it. That sensitivity, that desire not to hurt people, that delicate, mindful brilliance – these things were his partly because he thought too much like a woman. Up until his nasty experience it never really bothered him, but just at that moment, in that extremity of circumstance, it was enough to break him.