The Wasp Factory

by

Iain Banks

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Sexism and Gender Roles 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.
Sexism and Gender Roles Theme Icon

Francis Leslie Cauldhame, known as Frank to his family and friends, believes himself to be a teenage boy who was accidentally castrated by the family dog, Old Saul, at age three. Frank identifies as male, although his missing male genitalia, and the resultant lack of male sex characteristics (like facial hair or muscle tone), are sources of anxiety and frustration. Because he doesn’t feel himself to be fully masculine, Frank spends much of his time considering the difference between men and women. In his mind, he has developed a strict hierarchy, where men are superior and women are inferior. Although he acknowledges that no one is exclusively masculine or feminine, and everyone has some masculine qualities and some feminine qualities, Frank has cultivated a hatred for the feminine. However, although Frank is the narrator, and often writes about his sexist views, author Iain Banks makes his protagonist’s speech so extreme as to be satire. This satirization of misogynist speech, combined with a last-minute revelation regarding his own gender, which makes Frank realize the holes in his misogynist worldview, lends itself to a reading of The Wasp Factory as a feminist (or at least anti-sexist) novel, in which Banks argues that men and women are in fact equally capable, and deserve equal treatment.

Frank’s sense of his own masculinity is complicated. He believes that the family dog, Old Saul, accidentally castrated him when he was a toddler, and now he has no male genitalia. Many of his ideas of gender come from his own tenuous sex—he believes himself to be male but lacks many of the male sex characteristics that he would use to define his own masculinity. Frank thinks of himself as a man, noting, “I consider myself an honorary man.” However, the “honorary” implies that he feels he is missing out on some essential aspect of maleness. Frank also remarks at another point in the novel, “I am not a full man, and nothing can ever alter that; but I am me, and I regard that as compensation enough.” Although he feels like less than a man, he still feels like a complete human being, and has begun to separate himself from strict ideas about gender and sex. Still, Frank compensates for his castration through violence, and through a calculated hatred of women. He sees violence as the domain of men, which he can claim through action if not biology. At one point he lays out his philosophy: “Both sexes can do one thing especially 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.”

Frank has a complex philosophy regarding the differences between men and women. Early in the novel Frank announces, “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...” Although he has interacted with very few women, he nonetheless believes them to be inferior. This likely comes from a desire to separate himself from women abstractly, as, lacking male genitalia, he has difficulty separating himself from them physically. His view of women also likely comes from resentment towards his mother, Agnes. “I can’t remember my mother, because if I did I’d hate her. As it is, I hate her name, the idea of her.” He hates that she let Eric stay with relatives during his early childhood, and he blames her for returning to the island where she gave birth to his little brother Paul, during which time his father, Angus, was distracted and Frank was bitten by Old Saul.  Even as Frank draws strict distinctions between men and women, he acknowledges that men can have feminine traits and women can have masculine traits. He discusses this in regard to Eric, who he believes was too fragile, and too feminine. Frank believes that women “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 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.” Frank sees in Eric “a weakness, a fundamental flaw that a real man should not have had,” which allowed him to have the breakdown that eventually led to his institutionalization.

In the book’s final chapter, Frank is revealed to have been born a biological woman. Here, it becomes clear that much of Frank’s resentment of women stemmed from Frank’s own insecurity regarding his gender. Frank breaks into Angus’s office and finds male hormones and tampons. Initially confused, Frank confronts Angus, who explains that Frank was born as Frances. Old Saul did attack Frances (who uses female pronouns after her discovery), but the dog did not castrate her, as she always had female genitals. Angus nevertheless took the accident as an opportunity to experiment. He began feeding Frances male hormones, and raising his daughter as a son.  Surprisingly, Frances’s revelation does not dramatically change her identity. For someone who had engaged in such misogynist thinking, Frances feels that she is “the same person, with the same memories and the same deeds done, the same (small) achievements, the same (appalling) crimes to my name.” In fact, Frances is relieved to understand her true identity, and the root of her various obsessions. Frances realizes that the desire to murder and commit acts of violence came from a belief that she had experienced a “great hurt,” a “literal cutting off from society’s mainland.” Unable to create life (by giving birth, as many female bodied people can), Frances instead became obsessed with death. Now that Frances fully understands the past, she feels that finally the “journey begins.” The novel ends with Frances cheerily anticipating Eric’s surprise at coming home to meet his brother, but instead finding he has a sister instead.

Although Frank spends much of the novel disparaging women, his misogynistic ideas are never particularly convincing. Following the climax, where Frances finally understands that her aggression and violence was not due to some inherent masculinity, but instead overcompensation for perceived femininity, her entire philosophy falls apart. Men are not inherently better or stronger, and women are not inherently weaker and more fragile. Instead, women and men can both have traditionally feminine or masculine traits, which is what makes them complex, interesting individuals. Frank/Frances, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, becomes the poster child for complex individuals with male and female characteristics. Frances is able to see herself clearly for who she is—a woman forced to be a man—instead of who Angus claimed she was — a man whose masculinity was stolen from him. This self-knowledge is, in the end, more important than any reductive ideas of masculinity or femininity. Frances is happy to drop any theories about the superiority of men. Instead, she is pleased to understand who she is and why she’s behaved the way she has, and to admit that she, like all men and women, contains both violence and softness within her.

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Sexism and Gender Roles ThemeTracker

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

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

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

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 3 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 43
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

… 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

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.

Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis: