Study Guide

The Wave Setting

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Nine Days at Gordon High School

High school! Woo! Well, not quite. The Wave is set in and around Gordon High School over a nine day period – and boy is it dramatic.

The somewhat-true story this novel is based on is set in Palo Alto, California sometime in the late 1960s. But the novel doesn't confirm those particulars: we never get a date or location (although it was published in 1981, so it can't take place after that). This generic setting seems to suggest that the events in the novel could happen anywhere, anytime. Scary right? It definitely makes us think about the possibility of it happening to us. But it could never… right?

Although historical events like the Holocaust happen in specific settings, the struggle faced by people who speak up for what they believe in (even when it isn't popular) is universal. So in terms of that core message of the novel, Shmoop thinks the generic setting works well. What do you think? Would you prefer if the novel had a more specific setting?

Help! I'm Trapped in My Own Science Project!

The Wave is based on an informal classroom experiment conducted by high school teacher Ron Jones around 1967 (check out "In a Nutshell" for more on this). In the 1960s and early 1970s, using school as a setting for experiments in human behavior was quite the rage. Let's take a look at some examples.

In 1968, after the assassination of Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King, Jr., third grade teacher Jane Elliot conducted a famous experiment to try to teach her children about racism. You can watch the PBS Frontline documentary "A Class Divided" to learn about Elliot's experiment. We promise you will be fascinated.

Another famous example is The Stanford Prison experiment, where researchers at Stanford University created a mock prison in 1971. Some of the people who participated in the experiment played the role of guards, and others the role of prisoners. The experiment showed just how easy it is for people in positions of authority (even if the authority is just pretend!) to abuse their power. Kind of scary.

If all that isn't enough for you, you can read about Stanley Milgram's famous study at Harvard University in the early 1960s. Milgram's experiment was also about the dangers of authority and was directly influenced by his concern over what happened in the Holocaust. We don't want to give it all away, but this experiment features lots of screaming and lots of (fake) electrical shocks. Yeah – definitely worth a look.

Unlike the fictionalized events in The Wave, these experiments are fully documented and we know exactly how they went down. So even though The Wave is a fictional account of an undocumented event, we can be sure that similar things were going on all over the country at the time.

The Third Reich

You've probably heard this term quite a bit, especially if you're studying the Holocaust. So what the heck is it? Well, this is the term used to describe the period of Nazi rule in Germany, from 1934 to 1945 (source). Why do we bring it up? Well, this is the time period that makes up the background setting of The Wave.
We figure that explaining the term Third Reich will get you going on your explorations of this time period. But to do so, we have to subject you to a quick and dirty lesson in German history. The term actually gets us into some tricky territory, because it suggests that the history of Germany can be neatly divided into three types of rule, as follows:

(1) The Holy Roman Empire: 800 to 1919 (about 1,100 years). A look at this brief timeline of German history will show you that it's not that simple – there were lots of challenges, disputes, and downright battles during this time period. (Also, notice that 1919 is the year World War I ended.)

(2) The Weimer Republic: 1919 to 1933 (not very long in comparison to the Holy Roman Empire!). Germany was known as the "Weimer Republic" because its constitution was written at a place called Weimer after the end of World War I.

(3) The Third Reich: 1934 to 1945. When president of the Weimer Republic died in 1934, Adolf Hitler – who was then Chancellor of Germany – took over. He was president of Germany until 1945, the end of World War II.

So, think of "Third Reich" as a scary nickname used to describe the time that Hitler and the Nazis had power in Germany. And before we leave you to your explorations: remember that the original The Wave – that is, the real-life experiment that the novel depicts – was actually called "The Third Wave." Kind of eerie, right? (We wonder if that was the intention.)

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