What is the social/historical context of this novel, and how does this attract readers?

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akersel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Set in the 1980s on a remote, fictitious island off the coast of Scotland, the social and historical context of The Wasp Factory is key to exploring the novel's themes and its popularity. 

One of the most important historical aspects to consider is the militarization of the Scottish coast during WWII. Submarines patrolled the waters, and the sea bed was set with bombs. The explosion of a washed-up bomb, instigated by Frank, kills Paul. Throughout the novel, it is apparent that Frank is obsessed with war and violence as a macabre means of bringing balance to his life. He wages war on the rabbits as an act of vengeance, tit-for-tat against nature, to maintain his notion of harmony on the island. Frank causes the death of Blyth and Paul, two males, and so must kill Esmerelda as a means of regaining the balance between genders. His two greatest enemies are "Women and the Sea," the latter being a force of nature that he cannot control and the former being viewed by him as inherently inferior to men.

Frank's ingrained misogyny is indicative of the society around him. To put this in context, after the relative permissiveness of the 60s, the 1970s and 80s represented a backslide in terms of the social standing of women. Germaine Greer published The Female Eunuch in 1970, and second-wave feminism would have been very much part of intellectual discourse during the 1980s when the novel is set. Frank's disgust towards women, on a social level, reflects the often violent reactions against feminism during the 80s.

Frank's personal reason for his dislike of women relates to his own trauma—the injury he suffered as a child, mutilating his genitals. Frank, in the course of the novel, is defined as being physically androgynous and sexless but psychologically, aggressively male, seeking his vengeance on a world that castrated him. With the revelation that Frank is not a mutilated man as he thought but, in fact, a mutilated woman, Frank realizes that his revenge has been for nothing: "There was no revenge that needed taking, only a lie, a trick that should have been exposed."

Frank's anger and violence and even the development of the Factory can be seen as manifestations of past trauma, a way of creating his own mythology and place in a society from which he has, literally and figuratively, been severed through his castration and isolation on the island. Frank's father fulfills the well-established role of the Gothic scientist, treating Frank as a social experiment by using hormones to prevent him from developing as a female, inadvertently creating a monster.

It is in this way that The Wasp Factory blends the social and historical context of violence and gender with old-school Gothic motifs to become a novel of morbid appeal to the contemporary reader.

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Wasp Factory was a novel by Scottish writer Iain Banks first published in 1984. It is set on a remote island in Scotland. The setting is contemporary, i.e. the early 1980s. The island is portrayed as very isolated. This isolation means that the violent and eccentric behavior of Frank Cauldhame and his family can go undetected. Had the novel been set in a more densely populated area, many of the plot elements would have been implausible. 

This was a period of massive de-industrialization and decline of traditional industries for Scotland. Thatcher's reforms hit Scotland very hard, leading to increasing unemployment and poverty and disenchantment with the Tories. This led to a resurgence of calls for Scottish independence and the rise of the Scottish National Party. The growth of offshore oil seemed to benefit large corporations more than the people living in Scotland. 

The novel also responds to a growing awareness of gender identity and homosexuality. Homosexual acts were decriminalized in Scotland in 1980. More importantly, BBC showed a program called A Change of Sex in 1979/80 about a male to female transition, meaning that transgender issues were emerging as an important area of public discourse. The New Romantic movement in popular music also tended to emphasize androgyny or sexual ambiguity. 

Jessica Pope eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In The Wasp Factory, Frank Cauldhame critiques social institutions and the day-to-day lives of most people. He ironically repudiates religious ritual and myth by creating his own absurd rituals and treating them with religious solemnity. For example, he creates a wasp factory in which he kills wasps and and places them in a makeshift clock. Whichever wasp the clock presents to him at any given moment he reads as having almost astrological significance. Frank's life is full of rituals that are dark and macabre. His entire narrative serves to make fun of the rituals most people hold dear.

The social and historical context of The Wasp Factory is the Gothic subculture of the 1970's and '80s, which called attention to the futility and ineffectiveness of mainstream rituals and ideals. Thus, it appealed to many readers on an intellectual level. The story also speaks to the alienation that many teenagers feel when they first enter the adult world. Frank's refusal to accept a proper adult role, and his celebration of extremely self-involved activities, attract young readers who feel similarly alienated and rebellious

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