Themes

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The central theme of The Wave is the dynamic of fascism. Loosely defined, fascism is a dictatorial governmental system characterized by militarism, extreme patriotism, and the relinquishment of personal liberty on the part of the citizens. Ben Ross's lesson on Adolph Hitler's fascist regime evolves into an exploration of the nature of the system through an innovative experiment in which the students are the subjects, and results in the initiation of conditions which create the phenomenon of The Wave.

The Nazis in Germany in the mid-twentieth century numbered "less than ten percent of the German population," and Mr. Ross's students cannot understand how the group was able to pursue its evil agenda with such apparent impunity. In response to his students' incredulity that the German people could claim ignorance to the fact that something as wide-scale and horrific as the Holocaust was taking place, Mr. Ross tries to recreate an environment similar to that which proved so seductive that the vast majority of the German population remained oblivious while over ten million human beings were systematically slaughtered. Mr. Ross begins by demanding militaristic obedience in his classroom as an exercise, stressing the power that can be achieved if students submit to disciplining themselves in pursuit of a common goal. The feeling of group unity created by the experience is eerily akin to a heady rush, and the addition of symbols, salutes, and slogans results in an emotionally charged atmosphere in which everyone is purportedly equal, but no one thinks for themselves. Very quickly, an environment of fear and coercion develops as pressure is exerted against those who do not wish to participate in The Wave. To their dismay, the students who could not understand how the Germans could have allowed their country to descend to the depths of depravity before and during World War II soon discover just how easily they themselves can be manipulated to act as pawns under the institution of a fascist regime.

Responsibility, the illusion of equality, the corruptive influence of power, and the nature of the human condition are all significant elements in the susceptibility of individuals to fascist philosophy. The students' nonchalant attitudes towards responsibility as pertains to their education and other areas make them perfect candidates to fall under the influence of a fascist movement. It is much easier not to have to think; as Mr. Ross discovers early on, "it's amazing how much more (students) like you when you make decisions for them." The virulent patriotism engendered by the militaristic posturing of The Wave creates an emotional high in which students who have willingly and almost unthinkingly surrendered responsibility for determining their own destinies are swept mindlessly along.

The message of personal equality in the pursuit of a common goal is eagerly embraced by the students, especially those who feel disenfranchised for any reason under the old social system. Amy Smith, an intelligent student in her own right who has always lived in her friend Laurie Saunders' shadow, feels liberated by The Wave and no longer struggles with the need to compete with her gifted classmate, while outcast Robert Billings finds acceptance and affirmation at school for the first time in his life under the new order. Equality, however, is an illusion in The Wave, but its members are so consumed by the excitement of the phenomenon that they are unable to see the truth. When Mr. Ross randomly assigns individuals to enforce the tenets of the movement, he negates the concept of equality, giving power to some at the expense of the others. The Wave's foundation has become a contradiction, but since dissent is not allowed under the militaristic structure, the few...

(This entire section contains 781 words.)

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who would protest find they have no recourse.

It is the nature of the human condition that causes power to be a corrupting influence. Those who have been chosen to be the monitors of The Wave's standards resort to increasingly sinister and forceful methods to keep potential recalcitrants in line. Mr. Ross himself succumbs to the weaker elements of his own nature, arguably shirking his responsibility as a teacher by allowing the experiment to go on to satisfy his own curiosity, and entertaining thoughts of attaining personal recognition as the author of a daring and innovative, albeit dangerous educational exercise. What began as an innocent experiment on the part of a talented and well-intentioned teacher soon deteriorates into a potentially lethal situation, clearly illustrating the tragic reality that the conditions that allowed the atrocities of World War II Germany to occur are to a disturbing degree inherent in the makeup of the universal human character.

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