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Free Study Guide: Hiroshima by John Hersey - Notes / Book Summary

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HIROSHIMA BY JOHN HERSEY: FREE BOOKNOTES

CONFLICT

Protagonist

All six main characters together represent the protagonist of the book, as they struggle to survive after the atomic bomb is dropped on their city. All six are devastated to varying degrees by damage done to their bodies, family members killed, property destroyed, and shock to their emotions. Together with all the survivors of Hiroshima, the protagonists continue for the rest of their lives to struggle against the antagonist of the book, which is the bomb and its aftereffects.

Antagonist

The antagonist is the atomic bomb itself, which causes so much destruction, pain, and loss for the main characters as well as the entire city of Hiroshima. Although it is the American leadership that decides to drop the bomb, the main characters and most in the city accept that their suffering is an unfortunate consequence of war, and the fate they must endure. The author adds no judgment of his own to the charactersí interpretation of events, and therefore, the U.S. is not represented as the antagonist of the book.

Climax

The climax of the book is reached a few days after the bomb has hit, when the main characters are still in crisis as to whether they will live or die. Yet as the book is a factual account of a disaster and how people survived it, it could be argued that most of the book is in fact the climax. Only the first chapter, when the main charactersí everyday lives are described, and the last chapter, when years have passed since the bomb, are not part of this extended climax.

Outcome

There are six outcomes to the book, one for each of the main characters. Some are tragic; others are inspirational. All point to the enormous impact that the atomic bomb exposure had on their family lives, careers, and outlook on life. Rev. Tanimoto slips into a mundane existence, Dr. Fujii dies from gas poisoning and his family is split over his estate, Miss Sasaki becomes an active and courageous nun, Father Kleinsorge succumbs to radiation-induced illnesses after a lifetime of service to the Japanese people, Dr. Sasaki distances himself from his Hiroshima experience and prospers as a doctor, and Mrs. Nakamura raises her children to be happy adults and perseveres despite her own malaise.


SHORT SUMMARY (Synopsis)

The book begins with descriptions of what each of the six main characters was doing the morning that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, up to the moment of the blast and immediately after. Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a personnel clerk at the East Asia Tin Works factory, had sat down to rest from her office work and turned to chat with her co-worker. The impact of the blast caused the bookcases behind her to fall and crush her leg, and she lost consciousness. Dr. Masakazu Fujii, a middle-aged physician, was relaxing on the river-side porch of his clinic. The bombís blast threw him into the river, and the remains of his clinic followed him. He was trapped by two long pieces of wood across his chest, but his head was above water.


Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailorís widow with three young children, was watching her next-door neighbor tear his house down to make way for a fire escape route. When the atomic flash hit, she was thrown and covered by debris. After freeing herself, she dug out her children who were unhurt. Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a thirty-eight year-old missionary priest, was reading in his underwear in his room. When he saw the flash, he panicked, and somehow ended up in the vegetable garden, pacing aimlessly and bleeding from small cuts. Dr. Terufumi Sasaki was an idealistic, young surgeon working at the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital. He was bringing a blood specimen to the laboratory as the bomb flashed. Because he had moved one step beyond the window and had bent down at impact, he was unhurt. In the chaotic aftermath, he began to treat the wounded as the only uninjured doctor at the hospital. Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto was a hard-working and thoughtful pastor who was helping his friend move furniture out of the city that morning. The bomb hit when he and his friend arrived at their destination. Pieces of the collapsed house fell on him, but he was largely unhurt.

In the second chapter, each character moves from the initial impression that the damage of the bomb is localized to the realization that the entire city has been affected. Rev. Tanimoto immediately rushed toward the center of town, panicked with thoughts of his wife, baby, and parishioners. Everywhere, people were trapped under buildings that were on fire but no one stopped to help, as they were overwhelmed by the magnitude of need. Finding his wife and baby safe, he spent the rest of the day assisting the wounded in Asano Park. Near the end of the day, Mr. Tanimoto encountered a neighbor woman who would not let go of her dead infant, hoping that her husband would find them and be able to see the little girl once more. Mrs. Nakamura fled with her children to Asano Park, the designated evacuation area for her community. Though they had no visible injuries, they soon became nauseated and vomited the entire day. Father Kleinsorge was surprised that in his room, some seemingly sturdy things were blown out of place and crushed, but vulnerable things such as a papier-mâché suitcase was in tact. Father Kleinsorge helped the shell-shocked and reluctant Mr. Fukai, who was secretary of the Catholic diocese, to evacuate, by carrying him on his back for many blocks. Mr. Fukai escaped, however, and ran back toward the fire.

When Father Kleinsorge arrived at Asano Park with the other Catholics, he began giving water to the wounded and working with Rev. Tanimoto to assist people. After freeing two of his nurses from the rubble, Dr. Fujii waded back into the river to avoid the spreading fire, and moved to a sandpit near Asano Park. He was curious about the serious burns he saw on some victims, and surprised by the sheer number of dead and dying in the city. Dr. Sasaki, though not wounded, faced the daunting task of treating over 10,000 maimed and hurt from all over the city as one of six functioning doctors remaining in the Red Cross Hospital. As he slowly realized the extent of the human suffering in the city, he became a robot, treating people mindlessly for hours and hours. When Miss Sasaki was finally dug out from under the rubble, someone carried her to a courtyard where he set up a rustic shelter for her and two other grossly maimed victims. She was forgotten there for the rest of the day.

The third chapter covers the time from early evening on the day the bomb exploded to nine days later on August 15, 1945, when the Japanese Emperor announced on the radio Japanís surrender to the U.S. In these few days, the survivors in Hiroshima, along with Japanese scientists and government leaders, discovered that the bomb was a new type of weapon that split atoms. The authorities were cautious and vague in reporting details, however, and few in the city understood what little they were told. Father Kleinsorge continued to nurse the wounded in Asano Park until the next day, when he was evacuated to the Catholic Novitiate outside the city. He took with him two children by the surname Kataoka who had been separated from their mother. After several days of asking around, he was finally able to reunite them with their mother.

Mr. Tanimoto remained in Asano Park for five days, assisting the wounded. He was hounded by the woman who refused to cremate her dead baby until her husband could see it; she begged him to search for her husband but Mr. Tanimoto knew it would be impossible to find him. After he finally left the park, he was asked to come pray for a dying man who had been opposed to Mr. Tanimoto and his Christian teachings. Now, weak and humbled, he wanted comfort from religion. The man died as Mr. Tanimoto read a psalm. At his familyís roofless house, Dr. Fujii examined himself to discover several fractured bones and cuts. He eventually moved to a friendís summer home to recuperate, where he drank whiskey and discussed the possible nature of the bomb with a priest from the Novitiate who visited him.

Dr. Sasaki was forced to work for three days with just one hour of sleep. Hundreds at a time died, but no one had the time to carry away the bodies. When he was finally permitted to return home, he slept for 17 hours straight before resuming his duties. Miss Sasaki was left for two days and two nights under the makeshift awning without food or water. Finally, she was transported to a military hospital on a nearby island but moved again to a different hospital after a few days. When a fracture specialist finally examined her putrid leg, he decided he could not set the breaks so merely drained the puss.

Mrs. Nakamura and her children were evacuated to the Jesuit Novitiate after spending the night in Asano Park. They had little appetite and vomited often. After moving in with her sister-in-law in a nearby town, Mrs. Nakamura traveled into the city to check on her relatives, and found them all dead. She was quite affected by this discovery and the damage she had seen and was speechless that evening. On August 15, Mrs. Nakamura heard from her sister that the Emperor had spoken on the radio and announced Japanís surrender.

The third chapter discusses the main charactersí fates from 12 days after the bomb fell to a full year later. Most of them suffered some degree of radiation sickness in the months following their atomic exposure, including nausea, fever, blood disorders, and a falling white blood count. Japanese scientists were able to understand much of the atomic bombís function and effects by studying the ruins; yet the Americans remained extremely guarded with their supposed atomic secrets. Father Kleinsorge had perhaps the worst sickness of the six main characters. He was hospitalized in Tokyo for over three months, suffering high fevers, a low white blood cell count, and anemia. When he returned to Hiroshima, his doctors had ordered him to nap for two hours each day, but he found that difficult with so much pressing work. By August he was forced to return to the hospital for a monthís recuperation.

Mrs. Nakamura, living in Kobe with her sister-in-law, lost all of her hair within a few weeks of the bombing and was bedridden with nausea along with her younger daughter. Curiously, her older daughter and son felt fine. Feeling better simply by resting, she soon heard about rustic shacks being rented in Hiroshima and moved there with the cash from her war-time bonds and savings. Her money was gone by the following summer, however, and she was destitute.


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