How are societies influenced and changed by individuals?

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kjtracy eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The influence of individuals on society is a major theme throughout Night, by author Elie Wiesel. The author gives his own account of his imprisonment at the hands of the Nazis and his experience in various concentration camps. Throughout these experiences, his life is touched by many others in both beautiful and terrible ways. Through tragedy, Wiesel explores the numerous ways in which individuals impact society. From Hitler's impact on the Nazi Party and Nazi Germany as a whole to those individuals who remain kind in the face of cruelty, Wiesel presents the full spectrum of the individual's impact on society in this work.

Positive Individual Impact on Society

Moshe the Beadle, a man who was saved from massacre at the hands of the Germans, tells a young Elie Wiesel that the answers to life's most poignant questions lie "only within yourself." This quote sets the tone for how the author presents the impact of the individual on society throughout the story. Change always begins with the individual, whether good or bad. In the face of a thousand cruel people, Wiesel realizes that just one kind person can make a difference. This impact is portrayed symbolically and literally in Wiesel's eventual rescue from execution. Before he is about to be killed, a single American tank approaches the gates of Buchenwald where Wiesel and his father were held.

Negative Individual Impact on Society

The most obvious example of an individual's negative impact on society is Hitler's rise to power. In the wake of economic devastation after World War I, Hitler claimed power by preying upon the prejudices and paranoia of the German populace. Even when Hitler is not mentioned directly, his impact on German society is obvious at every turn. Elie and the other prisoners suffer greatly from this one individual's cruelty, demonstrating the terrible power of hatred and oppression that can be caused by a single person. It is this oppressive state that creates the titular night that falls both over the German-occupied countries in World War II and the narrator's life.

A smaller yet telling act of negative individual influence on society can be found in Chapter 9. Wiesel notes the absurdity of a Nazi guard who moves hundreds of prisoners in order to have a sexual encounter with a woman. Wiesel draws a parallel between this capricious action and Nazi ideology as a whole. He notes that the Nazis are a small number of men who affected all of society by their selfishness and cruelty. In contrast, he also notes that "in a world of absurdity, we must invent reason, we must create beauty out of nothingness." In this quote, Wiesel affirms the power of the individual to create beauty in society as well as darkness.

At the end of the story, there is a strong current of hope that individual goodness may be greater than the damaging impact of individual evil on society. After all that Wiesel has been through, he survives the night and lives on to make a difference in the world by telling his story. While Hitler devastated the world with violence, Wiesel and the other Holocaust survivors have the power to change society through their words, voices and inner strength.

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