The Wasp Factory
By Iain Banks


The history of literature has given us many novels on the theme of gender and its “versatility” or apparent changeability, many of them classics. So, by 1983, the year of “The Wasp Factory”s publication, did we really need another? In short, yes, we needed “The Wasp Factory.”

Gender is the twist in the novel, not the theme, and as a consequence it is one of the most original novels of the twentieth century – but that is not the only reason why 1983 needed this novel. At the end, the disturbed teenage narrator Frank discovers that he was born a girl and is male as a result of his fathers hormonal experimentation. This throws Frank into an identity crisis, unable to function as a woman – he can live, he says, as a normal woman capable of “intercourse and giving birth – I shudder at the thought of either.”

1983 – the United Kingdom was four years into Thatcher’s twelve years as prime minister.
Unemployment was at a high, laissez-faire prevailed and society became increasingly atomised. Dealing with the economy was done under the influence of the works of Adam Smith, writer of “An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” who set out the mechanism by which he felt economic society operated. Each individual strives to become wealthy “intending to his own gain” but to this end he must exchange what he owns or produces with others who significantly value what he has to offer; in this way, through a free market, public interest is advanced. He made it clear in his writings that quite considerable structure was required in society before his “invisible hand” mechanism could work effectively – and advocated to laissez-faire view of politics and economics echoed in Thatcherism.

These days, the very name of Thatcher still manages to inspire the same feelings of loathing and support as it did during her time in power. She was the leader of the Conservative party from 1975 and came to power in 1979, winning two further general elections in 1983 and 1987. The main influence of Thatcher’s political philosophy was her parliamentary colleague Keith Joseph, the key factor in this philosophy being the importance of the market. She controlled the power of the Trade Unions with a great deal of hostility, heavily regulating their terms of office through new legislation. Under her power Britain began to move into a deregulated economy and new services became more important than the previously dominant manufacturing sector. Unemployment in her first term soared to three million. No wonder, then, that people were struggling for identity – much like Frank in “The Wasp Factory.” “I was never registered” he says “I have no birth certificate, no National Insurance number, nothing to say I’m alive or have ever existed.” Thatcherite control also permeates and forces questioning of the most basic and innate actions, as Frank’s even more disturbed brother Eric tells him “You don’t have to sleep. That’s just something they tell you to keep control over you.”

“The Wasp Factory” aroused as much revulsion as it did acclaim upon its publication – could this be due to the struggle for Thatcherite identity meaning the reader saw more of themselves in the child killing Frank than they would care to admit?

Amy Britton