Antiheroes and Their Identities: Comparing Jerusalem and The Wasp Factory.

July 10, 2019 by Essay Writer

The concept of the antihero is central to both Jerusalem and The Wasp Factory. By exploring their identities, the writers expose issues related to the society their protagonists are surrounded by. In his modern, realist play, Butterworth creates Johnny Byron – a Romany traveller who, whilst being perceived as a gypsy drug dealer by outsiders is a much more complex character with a strong sense of identity and morality. By juxtaposing these two sides of his protagonist, Butterworth asks important questions about British culture, from how fatherhood and masculinity are viewed, to whether we have a social system that predetermines the roles people play. Banks presents us with Frank, ‘a teenage sadist’, the victim of complex psychological manipulation, in his ‘gothic horror story’ to challenge social norms by asking what exactly it is that constitutes sanity and whether it is relative to the person, and exploring the relationships between gender, sex and identity.

The isolation of a character is a powerful influence in the development of the antihero – Both settings that surround the characters are cut off from the rest of conventional society. Butterworth immerses Johnny in a green world; a ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ type haven which, whilst providing him with a place that he feels a sense of ownership over, plays its part in isolating him from society. Banks takes the idea of physical isolation even further, as Frank is literally cut off from mainland Scotland. This island setting also provides him with a sense of ownership, as Frank asserts his dominance over it in a gruesome and disturbing way. With the allusions to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein giving The Wasp Factory consistent undertones of transgression and monstrous behaviour, as Frank roams his home island in “The Sacrifice Poles”, we begin to see how meticulously controlled childhood conditions have shaped him into a real-life monster, acting only on his innate desires. Frank’s mental disconnection means that he sees the island as his own kingdom and in turn, has developed a God complex with regards to the life that inhabits it. This is demonstrated not only by his killings, but by the playful way in which they are executed; Frank names places on the island, “the skull grounds” and the “bomb circle” after the lives he has taken there, which creates a parallel reality, like that of a horrific a child’s imaginary game.

Whereas Frank actively responds to his surroundings, manipulating the nature around him for his own trivial pleasures, Byron crafts his own world according to stereotype he lets himself fall into. Johnny is physically cordoned off from society, he argues that “This is Rooster’s Wood. I’m Rooster Byron”, with this possessive, reiterative language making it clear that he feels a strong sense of ownership over the wood he has chosen to make his home. However, perhaps ironically, whilst Johnny may believe it is this separation that distinguishes him in a positive way from the rest of society and even contributes to his heroic image, it ultimately leads to his downfall. Not only does it result in him being viewed by society as a ‘drunken drug dealer who befriends underage girls and wrecks any pub that hasn’t barred him’ , his eviction results in the end of Johnny’s reign as a local legend. Unlike Frank, who manipulates his surroundings, Johnny creates an environment that defines him as a person. The stage directions at the start of act one describe the clearing of the wood in a state of disrepair with ‘an old mouldy couch stand[ing] on the porch deck. Lots of junk. An old hand-cranked air-raid siren’ the props themselves and the way they are described suggest neglect, furthermore, the way the stage directions are written, in broken up and incomplete sentences reflect the fact that although Johnny’s outward attitude appears uncaring, his situation is deeply unstable.

Both writers disconnect their protagonists from the social norms of a conventional world by creating conceptual frameworks, alternative mental states through which their characters perceive the world and people that surround them. Frank’s mental state is quite different to Johnny’s state of self-deception. In a sense, by infantilising parts of Frank’s personality, giving him a certain naivety in the way he excitedly narrates his ‘adventures’, Banks encourages an uncomfortable empathy from his readers; further complicating the concept of the antihero. Although we wouldn’t go so far as to say that this excuses his horrific disregard for the life, it could be argued that Frank’s knowledge of the repercussions of his actions is limited due to an upbringing that was out of his control – much like Frankenstein’s monster. This results in a narcissistic lack of empathy, shown by Frank’s creation of his ‘Wasp Factory’. In a review of the operatic adaptation of the novel, Howe argues that ‘To Frank, [the wasp factory is] a divination device; to us, it’s a searing illustration of a worldview in which time and life are machines that manufacture doom.’ showing that Frank’s creation is a symbol of his attitudes towards time and life; attitudes which are damaging both internally and to the life that surrounds him.

Frank perceives his own actions through the heavily deluded eyes of someone plagued by a mental illness that has stemmed from an early childhood identity crisis. The notion that there is no official record of Frank’s birth, hints, early on, at an unstable sense of self. He narrates, in an excited tone how “I was never registered. I have no birth certificate, no National Insurance number, nothing to say I’m alive or have ever existed.” Banks lays the foundations of a life destined for transgression; if Frank’s very existence represents a law broken, we cannot expect him to abide by social norms – laws enacted by governments with a very clear sense of morality and purpose.

Butterworth creates a mental illness where his protagonist is unable to distinguish between truth and fantasy. Johnny’s elaborate lies are directed not only at those around him, but at his own conscious reason. Although this self-deception may perhaps have started merely as a coping mechanism – an evasion of reality – through the creation of this world, ‘Johnny is self-fashioning a legend and the myth of his own origins’3, justifying actions that are transgressive of social norms by appointing himself the hero of the tales he tells. These blurred lines between truth and imagination mean that his sense of identity is greatly dependent upon his own anecdotes.

This self inflicted mental state, is exposed around matters of paternal care. Johnny tells us of his own conception through an almost blasphemous and anecdote in which he claims to have been conceived when his father, in the act of adultery is shot ‘slap bang in the love-bells’ which, through some fantastical scene, results in the impregnation of his mother. Again, the antihero’s very existence is transgressive; even dependent on the violation of social laws. Perhaps Johnny sees this as his excuse for his own behaviour; making it unsurprising that his responsibilities as a father have been ‘evaded and denied’3. However, Phillips argues that ‘this anecdote seems to bestow a stature upon both father and son that transcends a sordid and unheroic reality, rendering both as fanatic as the story which creates them.’3 ; Johnny adapts his own sense of identity and purpose to fit his heritage. Butterworth’s exploration of his protagonist shows how, though it may appear as though Johnny is breaking social rules, he is very much staying within the boundaries set out for him by a classist society. It is almost as if, in adapting his actions according to legal system, he would be abandoning his identity, crossing a line which the legal system itself creates.

Marky is an embodiment of Johnny’s greatest fears and internal struggles whose appearance constantly brings up issues surrounding the Byron identity. Phillips views Marky as the ‘modern-day continuation of the Byron dynasty’3, who is plagued by hostile attitudes as a result of his father’s reputation. When Dawn describes how “Marky comes home every day in floods. Scratches. Bruises. His bag handle torn. ‘Your dad don’t pay no tax. Your dad’s a gyppo.’ ”, momentarily, Johnny’s view of his situation become less distorted; although the outward denial remains in the remark “That boy’s gonna be just fine”, Butterworth abandons the characteristic humour that Johnny meets awkward situations with, suggesting that there is an element of parenthood that sobers him; perhaps it is pride in the Byron bloodline that means he is afraid of corrupting his son, or the fact that he is for the first time confronted with the negative effects of the identity he is outwardly proud of.

Banks also explores the paternal role in the development of one’s identity and how a single, masculine role model, and lack of maternal care has had an immense impact on his protagonist. Frank’s ‘strangely ritualistic killing of animals and grandiose pleasure of seeking prophecies from his wasp factory’ 2 shows an amplified reflection his father’s obsessive nature. Although Frank claims to be able to “see [his] father’s obsession for what it is”, it is obvious that being forced to learn the “height… area and volume of just about every part of the house” has had a profound impact on his own behaviour. However, not only does Frank’s father shape Frank’s psychological state, he also takes control of his child’s gender by feeding him/her hormones. This is perhaps one of the main issues that Bank’s addresses that sparked outrage from his early readers and critics; In 1984, the issue of transsexuality had very little exposure and was still regarded by many as a transgression of social norms. However, while most modern-day readers would accept Frank as a transgender man, the fact that it was not a conscious choice for him remains transgressive, not only of social norms, but of human rights boundaries. However, In the final chapter, when pondering whether the realisation of his true gender has, in a sense, killed off his former self, Frank, concludes that ‘I am still me; I am still the same person with the same memories and the same deeds done, the same (small) achievements, the same (appalling) crimes to my name’, concluding that gender is not an intrinsic part of identity.

The notion that a character is defined by their prejudices; sexism in particular, is explored in contrasting ways by both writers. While in Jerusalem, the source of sexism is objectification of women and examples of toxic masculinity, leading to the empowerment of the male characters, Banks shows Frank and his father as extreme misogynists, openly expressing their contempt for femininity and all that it stands for. Frank explains that his father’s ‘little experiment, [was] a way of lessening – perhaps removing entirely – the influence of the female around him as [he] grew up’ which, in turn, resulted in Frank’s own ironic misogyny. ‘Frank bathes in male chauvinism, seeing women as the stereotypically “weaker sex”.’ 2 claiming that ‘women… are weak and stupid and live in the shadows of men and are nothing compared to them’ due to his naivety; his only experience of women from ‘watching hundreds… of film and television programmes.’ This could be interpreted as Bank’s criticism of the way women were presented as the ‘trembling victim’ in media as Frank’s experience of them seems to be just that; from his viewpoint, “they get raped, or their loved ones die ,and they go to pieces, go crazy and commit suicide or just pine away until they die”.

In Jerusalem, Johnny uses sexual objectification as a way of asserting his dominance within his social group. Despite sometimes adding to the more satirical aspect of the play, Johnny’s jokes often sexualise women and his heroism, at least in the eyes of his followers, depends upon this ‘dominance’. Use of colloquial terms and taboo language in his description of his experiences with women, such as “I swear to Christ I was shagging her only last June” adds to the derogatory nature of them. However, although Johnny presents an overt masculinity, his fierce protection of Phaedra from her sexually abusive stepfather shows that he is aware and against of the notion of sex being used as both as a physical and psychological weapon. This makes his sexual identity ambiguous; on the one hand, he sees no harm in objectification to the extent that some audiences may argue he verges on predatory, yet he appears to strongly disagree with this trait in others, namely Troy, to the point where he fights for this belief in the final act. Perhaps there is a progression of his views as the play intensifies, or perhaps this conflicting mindset simply epitomises the state of society’s attitudes towards the objectification of women.

Just as Johnny’s overtly masculine approach to his sexuality appears integral to his admirability, at least to his friends, Frank’s sexual repression is portrayed core part of his identity to the point where it becomes the motivation for his actions. It is this focus on their sexuality as an intrinsic part of their identity that distinguishes the antiheroes from their supporting characters. As a result of his father’s experiment, Frank views himself as sexually deficient. Bank’s protagonist holds the view that sexual ability defines masculinity and that dominance is central to that ability – reflected in his ritualistic manipulation of nature. Without the organs necessarily to play the male part in the procreative act, Frank claims to have developed the Freudian phenomenon of ‘penis envy’, viewing himself as inferior to those with male genitalia. Furthermore, he believes he is incapable of procreation, which leads to a further sense of deficiency, prompting him to aim to destroy all evidence of this concept in the world that surrounds him, killing three of his young relatives and ‘sacrificing’ innocent animals. However, Frank comes to this self-realisation only once the jealousy has dispersed; explaining how “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”. Rather than leaving his personality lacking something, Frank’s apparent lack of a sexuality adds a complex element to his identity that becomes his motive for murder. In his own confused thought process, Frank uncovers that “The murders were my own conception; my sex.” The way this statement is worded without any emotive language gives the reader a final sense of self-acceptance which seems to resolve the inner conflict Bank’s protagonist has experienced throughout his life.

The fact that Banks presents the ability to reproduce as desirable, almost as an intrinsic aspect of a ‘complete’ human, in the eyes of his antihero, leaves his readers uncertain of his own views on the purpose of the sexual act. Perhaps in a sense he was reacting to the controversial changes to contraception laws, the most recent of which passed in 1974 which allowed family planning clinics to prescribe single women the contraceptive pill. Banks’s own religious identity as a self-proclaimed “evangelical atheist’4 would suggest that he would agree with the concept that sex was not just for procreation, and therefore be in favour of the new laws.. Perhaps the way in which he presents Frank as single-minded when it comes to the purpose of sex, voices his concerns for the attitude that sex is solely for procreation and the damage that this ‘tunnel-vision’ may cause.

In contrasting yet equally fascinating explorations of what constitutes the identity of the antihero, Butterworth and Banks present two complex views of the world through the eyes of their deeply troubled protagonists. It is these views that the writers use to expose and inspire their audiences. Jez Butterworth’s satirical, realist play has inescapable undertones of subversion running through it, addressing deep-rooted issues within British culture, making it a truly versatile play; appealing to directors and inspiring to audiences. Iain Banks’s contemporary gothic novel simultaneously repulses and entices his readers, making the insanity, sexuality and brutality he writes about all the more progressive.


Fisher, Phillip. “Jerusalem, Royal Court Theatre Downstairs.” British Theatre Guide. 2009.Anon. “The Wasp Factory” – Ritualism, Gender and Deception Through The Eyes Of A Teenage Sadist”. Maaretta WordPress. Nov 29, 2010.Phillips, Nicholas. “Byron Blood and Byron Boys” emagazine. April, 2016.Banks, Iain. “I’m an evangelical atheist” BBC 5 Live YouTube. Oct 19, 2010.Howe, Brian. “The Wasp Factory By Brian Howe” Pitchfork. Dec 27th, 2016.Banks, Iain. “The Wasp Factory”. London: ABACUS, 1984.Butterworth, Jez. “Jerusalem”. London: Nick Hern Books, 2009.

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