The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

There are three sorts of characters in The Wave: the few great figures of history, such as Davis, Lincoln, Lee, and Grant; the many ordinary men and women caught up in the history of the period in which they live; and the mechanism Scott calls war, which involves all these characters in the action.

Least aware of their status as victims of circumstances are people such as Fanny May, a woman recovering from childbirth and the death of her baby, who drives out to watch the fighting near Richmond in the hope of seeing her husband, Philip. The armies in conflict are faint figures on the horizon, and Fanny May is unable to see them clearly because of the crowd of observers—a neat demonstration of Scott’s point that, for ordinary people, the surface of life gets in the way of vision. The great man, by contrast, stands apart from the crowd; he is able to see beyond the appearance of things. During the campaign in the wilderness, Grant sees that his capacity of action depends upon public perception of his ability: “The hint of a divergence between someone’s opinion of him and his own idea of himself was enough to throw him into a panic.” Lee has a similar insight shortly before the surrender at Appomattox; mixing with the young officers of his staff, he feels a certain constraint and attributes it to the fact that they do not know, as he does, “that strength, even for the strong, has its limitations.” Lee, Grant, Lincoln, and Davis know...

(The entire section is 405 words.)