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“Ştefan cel Mare” University

Suceava
Raluca Maria Cazacu,
CCB I
Banks’s exploration of the Gender

“The Wasp Factory” follows the life of “almost seventeen” year old Frank, an
apparently sadistic and disturbed child who “likes” to torture animals and has killed three
people (all children that are related to them), lives with their dad whose brother Eric has
just escaped from a sanitarium. The book itself is like watching a catfight: not pretty, but
impossible to draw your eyes away. The imagery of how he tortured the rabbits was a bit
“dark”, but the bit that practically had the reaching point was when Frank described the
ordeal that his brother went through when tending to a baby at the hospital.
Although The Wasp Factory never quite reaches the levels of a gleeful sadism,
having high expectations for the wickedness, it is still thoroughly disturbing and shocking
by it. Frank is one of the most macabre yet interesting literary characters I’ve read about
(he sees death as natural and feels no qualms about killing, yet felt compelled to kill his
cousin to balance out the numbers in terms of gender). Banks creates him excellently and
builds their world and their mindset. It’s an unpleasant book, but it’s a great Gothic-like
tale.

Banks opens up the idea that our gender is learnt. We learn how to be masculine
and feminine through role modelling others in our society: it is a social construct. In the
novel, Banks portrays the concept of masculinity prominently and rather controversially
through the character of Frank. This sets a background of irony throughout, since Frank is
actually of female sex. Frank's masculinity is depicted through stereotypes - learnt
perceptions of how a man should think and act.
In the novel he is all about power and control (which is quite ironic because since
a very young age his life has been dictated for him, and perhaps the most important thing
to note is that he has completely no control over his biological sex, even though he
spends most of the book trying to prove he is of a male gender). Frank also shows
braveness and protection, these are all traditional views on how a 'real' man should be. He
is also sexist towards women, which shows his utter want and need to be a man since he
despises the opposite sex.
In a more contemporary typical outlook on men, Frank is also crude and lacks
emotion: “her flat little chest”, “I would have the ultimate control”, “children aren't real
people”.

Banks explores this further, through the use of a grotesque description of what
happened to Frank. He shows that masculinity can still occur even in lack of male sex
organs. And in fact, Frank used his disadvantage to become more masculine - proving to
the world that he was still a 'man'.
To Frank, killing three people proved that he was even more of a man than most.
Even though Frank does not have a close or a far from ideal relationship with his father,
he was still at the complete mercy of his words. Frank trusted him and believed every
word about his accident with 'Old Saul'.
Banks shows us how easy it is to believe the words of others as we too believe
every word that Frank gives to us, even if we think that the situation is a little far-fetched
and peculiar. This is the power of transgression in Gothic Literature, the power that such
novels have over the reader, allowing ourselves to believe something which exceeds our
norms and things which we are familiar to. In Banks's exploration of gender, I think that
he interweaves this debate of nature and nurture. He proudly claims that men are good at
killing and strong because of this. Frank bathes in male chauvinism, seeing women as the
stereotypically “weaker sex”. Frank can’t find anything redeeming in the entire class of
women. Nothing. His misogyny, however, backfires on him in the end of the novel, when
Frank realizes he himself is actually a female.

Frank is actually a woman who has just been secretly fed male hormones and has
been nurtured as one of the gendered male clan. Frank’s father has experimented on him
to see if he could change him/her into a male without him/her realizing it and so he/she
has been told that his/her penis was bitten off by a dog when he/she was a toddler and
therefore had nothing “down there”.
At the end of the novel, when Frank is confronted with his/her supposed
biological gender he/she is horrified and cannot accept this fact. Frank cannot accept
himself as a woman, but in the oddity of his/her psyche it is because he/she thinks of
themselves as ”good at killing” which would, in the strange logic of the ritualistic sex and
death, crush the idea that women were weak and men the strong ones. Frank turns out to
be a woman that hates women.
It is ironic to remember his hate speeches of women only to discover he himself
has an XX chromosome. “The Wasp Factory” bravely states, by the narrative mechanism
of Franks ideology being crushed by his true identity, that we as humans always think we
know where the line of femininity and masculinity is drawn, but in the end it is
impossible to say how women are and men are and it is a function of our cultures and our
families. Since all humans are individuals what we are is human and not gender.

When “The Wasp Factory” was re-published on its 25th anniversary in 2009, it
came out with an edition that featured a new preface by Iain Banks. It is interesting to
read what his goal was when he wrote “The Wasp Factory”: “…it was supposed to be a
pro-feminist, anti-military work, satirizing religion and commenting on the way we’re
shaped by our surroundings and upbringings and usual skewed information we’re
presented with by those in power”.
These were Banks intentions and targets in the work of the Wasp Factory and he
succeeded perfectly in reaching his goals. Few authors, in my opinion, have done such a
well job on getting this still important and contentious “message” across to the reader
with such force and clarity.