Study Guide

The 5th Wave Themes

By Rick Yancey

  • The Other

    In a book where humans' alien attackers are actually referred to as "the Others," it seems like a safe bet that Other-ness will somehow figure into its themes. The interesting thing about the Others in The 5th Wave is that their Other-ness is a source of both comfort and intense anxiety for humans.

    Part of what makes the Others so scary is that they seem unknowable; for a long time, no one even knows what the aliens look like, much less what they want. Eventually, Cassie and the others find out the Others look just like humans, which is distressing on a lot of levels. For one thing, it makes things confusing. (You never know who you're fighting…or kissing.) For another, it's hard to stomach that humans and aliens have anything in common.

    Questions About The Other

    1. What do you think motivates the Others' actions? Explain your answer.
    2. Most of the book is told from the perspectives of two humans, Cassie and Zombie. How would the story have been different if it had been told from the Others' perspective?
    3. Apart from appearance, what traits do the Others and humans seem to share? What are their major differences?

    Chew on This

    The Others seem unusually cruel and spiteful towards humans. Their mission isn't just about claiming planet Earth.

    The Others need Earth for the survival of their species. They don't have any sort of personal grudge against humans.

  • Manipulation

    The Others are into mind games like whoa. First they disguise themselves as humans, which allows them to secretly infiltrate (and eventually take over) important military bases. Then they train child soldiers to kill their fellow humans through another series of deceptions. That's a pretty neat party trick, don't you think?

    Evan is an alien, so it's not exactly a surprise that he's into deception. (His seems to be for a good cause, though—he just wants to keep Cassie safe.) It's also worth noting that the other two main characters, Cassie and Zombie (who are both humans), each pose as someone they're not at least once in the book. Cassie acts like a young child so she can infiltrate the military base and save her brother, and Zombie dresses up like a doctor in his own attempt to save Sammy.

    Questions About Manipulation

    • Why do you think the aliens go to such great lengths to manipulate humans instead of just murdering them all outright?
    • At what point, exactly, does Cassie realize that Evan is a Silencer?
    • Which character do you think is the best manipulator: Evan, Cassie, or Zombie? Explain your answer.

    Chew on This

    Cassie sees through Evan's deception almost right away. She didn't buy his act, but she couldn't face it until he stated it in no uncertain terms.

    Cassie truly believes that Evan is human up until the point that he admits he's an alien. She had doubts, but he lied so well that she was able to put them aside.

  • Perseverance

    Have you ever noticed that, when it comes to the end of the world, survivors tend to be persistent sons of guns? Whether it's The Walking Dead or The Road, fictional apocalypse tends to bring out humans' will to persevere against adversity. And The 5th Wave is no different.

    Interestingly, Cassie and Zombie have the same goal: to save Sammy. (Saving the world is too tall of an order.) Separately, but in parallel, they keep pushing to make it happen even when everyone around them says it's impossible. Ultimately, despite major struggles, they both come to Sammy's rescue.

    The question is: what happens after that? Sure, they saved Sammy, but can the human race survive? This is just the first book in the series, so we don't know the answer yet.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Describe how the motivation behind Zombie's fight to survive changes over the course of the novel.
    2. At what point does Cassie seem closest to giving up? What pulls her back from the edge?
    3. How do the aliens try to snuff out human hope?

    Chew on This

    The 5th Wave is a novel in which persistence pays off.

    The three main characters don't fight to stay alive for their own sakes. They persevere because of their dedication to other people.

  • Mortality

    In a book about the end of the world, you can expect to see a lot of death. This particular alien apocalypse has wiped out more than seven billion people, which is almost everyone. Almost.

    The scale of that tragedy is no joke, and its impact is taken very seriously in The 5th Wave. At the same time, the story flirts with the idea that all this death is really nothing new. Sure, it's unusual and sad and terrible that everyone's dying at once. But at the end of the day, weren't all those people going to die anyway? That's what happens when you're human. The Others didn't invent mortality.

    Cassie and Ben come to that realization separately, and it's interesting to watch them process it. When Ben contemplates his inevitable death, he feels defeated. Cassie, on the other hand, seems to draw strength from it. If she's going to die either way, what does she really have to lose?

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Which death do you think impacts Cassie the most: the death of her mother, her father, or the Crucifix Soldier? Explain your answer.
    2. Whenever possible, Cassie tries to avoid killing other characters. Why is preserving life so important to her?
    3. How does the alien apocalypse help the human characters come to terms with their own inevitable deaths?

    Chew on This

    In The 5th Wave, knowing you're going to die is source of despair. It means that nothing really matters.

    In The 5th Wave, knowing you're going to die is a source of empowerment. It means you have nothing to lose.

  • Change

    From tectonic plates to the circle of life, things on Earth are always changing. That's nothing new. Still, when seven billion people croak in just a few months' time, a lot of practical—and emotional—adjustments that must be made.

    There's the big stuff, like no more electricity or cars. There's the little things, like no more cold drinks. Then there's the utter terror of watching almost everyone around you die badly. Cassie, Ben, and the other humans in The 5th Wave are dealing with a lot of strain on a lot of levels, and each person has their own way of coping.

    Also, some people choose not to cope at all. We're told that, after the alien attacks, many people killed themselves, unable to find a way to deal with all that upheaval.

    Questions About Change

    1. Why do the human characters have so much sentimental value for seemingly unsentimental things (like cell phones) from their pasts?
    2. Why does Evan change his allegiance from Team Alien to Team Human?
    3. Cassie's world has changed a lot, almost overnight. Which change do you think she struggles with the most?

    Chew on This

    Through the characters of Cassie and Ben, The 5th Wave suggests that change is a force for bad.

    Through the character of Evan, The 5th Wave suggests that change can be a force for good.

  • Madness

    Fear of murderous alien colonizers would be enough to make your mind play tricks on you. That said, these particular murderous alien colonziers are really, really into playing with people's minds. For that reason, it's a little hard differentiate between run-of-the-mill crazy people and the Sherlocks who've managed to crack the case about Camp Haven being headed up by aliens posing as military personnel.

    With the constant threat of "going Dorothy"—that's military speak for losing your mind—looming over all the characters in The 5th Wave, they have to stay on their toes. Whenever someone has an insight, they have to ask themselves: am I in fact brilliant? Or am I just cracking under pressure? It's hard to know the difference, which suits the Others just fine.

    Questions About Madness

    1. How do we know that Tank's death wasn't a suicide?
    2. Why are the Others so interested in making humans crazy? Shouldn't extermination be enough?
    3. What effect do the Others think that solitude will have on their human prey?

    Chew on This

    In the upside-down world of The 5th Wave, sane is the new crazy, and crazy is the new sane.

    In The 5th Wave, the Others try to make humans crazy—not so much to kill them as to torture them.

  • Warfare

    The Others are waging a war against the human race, and so far the humans have had a hard time fighting back. You'll notice that the struggles of characters like Cassie and Ben aren't anything so grand as saving the world; their goal is to save just one little boy.

    In The 5th Wave, at least, they're playing defense, not offense.

    The Others have some impressive weapons—including tsunamis and killer plagues—up their sleeves. Arguably, their most effective tactic is the way in which they keep humans guessing about what will happen next. Another is the way in which they sow doubt in people's hearts about who's actually human. (The Others look like regular people.) Finally, there's the child army they're training back at the alien military base, Camp Haven. What's up with that, anyway? Like the humans in the book, we can only speculate.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. Why do you think the Others are training child soldiers to do their dirty work? Analyze that tactic as best you can.
    2. Do you think the humans will fight back in meaningful way in Books Two or Three? Why or why not?
    3. Evan briefly struggles with his human-alien identity at the beginning of the book. What helps him figure out who he really is?

    Chew on This

    Pop culture's representation of alien attacks has left Cassie and her fellow humans totally unprepared for the real deal.

    Pop culture provides plenty of clues about alien tactics that Cassie and the gang have missed. Maybe they just haven't watched the right movies.

  • Identity

    Identities in The 5th Wave are super-unstable. The human characters, especially Cassie and Ben, feel disconnected from the happy high school students they were before the attacks. On the alien front, the Others look just like humans, so it's hard to discern who's who. Plus, Evan switches sides, going from Cassie's hunter to her protector in a matter of moments.

    As the humans struggle to figure out who they can trust, we readers experience a similar feeling. The author drops a lot of hints about Evan's alien identity, but we don't know for sure until he admits it to Cassie. We watch Vosch murder Cassie's dad, but he provides a semi-believable excuse for that behavior later in the novel.

    The point is, identities in The 5th Wave aren't set in stone. They're always subject to change—which can be good or bad.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Who do you think changes the most over the course of the novel? Explain your answer.
    2. At what point did you realize that Evan was a Silencer? Tell us about the moment that tipped you off.
    3. Why do you think Vosch lies to Ben and the other child soldiers about his alien identity?

    Chew on This

    War changes who you are, whether you want it to or not.

    Cassie and Ben think that the war has changed who they are to the core, but we can see that many of their most essential personality traits seem to be intact.