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

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Major Themes

Theme of Survival

One major theme of this book is survival, both of individuals and of the community. The book describes how people react in crises and what this show of their moral character. How each person chooses to rebuild their lives and also how the city of Hiroshima rebuilds itself after the disaster reveals the priorities of each person and the city as a whole. Part of the theme of survival is the portrayal of the human spirit and the will to keep on living even in the face of so much death and destruction. Survival is also demonstrated in how life slowly returns to normalcy for most, even after they live through severe trauma.

Theme of the Effect of War on Civilians

Written one year after the first atomic bombs were dropped on civilians (or any human beings, for that matter), the effect of total war on regular populations is a major theme of the book. Total war means no one is left untouched. This is emphasized in that even though the atomic bomb was dropped to fight the Japanese, even non-Japanese (the German Jesuits) were affected by it. Family homes and businesses are summarily destroyed. Normal civilian life is completely altered and those who escape death must undergo great challenges just to survive. Moreover, the effect of war on civilians involves constant and fearful anticipation of the attack to come, as seen in the first chapter of the book. People cannot live peaceful or normal lives as they are forced to be in a constant state of alert for air raids.

Minor Theme

Theme of Life’s Frailty and Unpredictability

After the atomic bomb kills 100,000 in Hiroshima, the six main characters of the book wonder why they survived while so many others perished. They reflect that it was small, unconscious, and seemingly coincidental actions that spared their lives at the moment of impact. This is the minor theme of how chance can be a powerful force in life. The theme is also reflected in how many of the characters view the rest of their lives. They see their suffering and hardships from the bomb’s destruction as unavoidable, nobody’s fault, and their fate. They do not have a sense of entitlement nor do they blame others for their problems. The theme of life’s unpredictability is also reflected in how most of the main characters continue to suffer misfortune, difficulties, and death even after surviving the bomb.


The mood of the book is very shocking and troubling. It is a literal and uncensored account of the impact of the first atomic bomb to be dropped on human beings. The graphic details of human suffering and the physical effects of radiation and burns are deeply disturbing to the reader. Despite the gruesome details, however, the mood is rather unemotional, since the book is an objective and journalistic retelling of six survivors’ stories. The characters all exhibit the classic Japanese stoicism, further adding to the mood of stolid endurance and survival. The final outcome is varied according to each character’s fate. Some outcomes are uplifting, inspirational, and hopeful as the character overcomes extreme trauma to carve out a meaningful life. Other outcomes are disappointing as the character fails to live up to his or her full potential. These latter outcomes match the dark mood characterizing most of the book, as it describes the bomb’s effects.

John Hersey - BIOGRAPHY

John Hersey - Hiroshima Free Study Guide/Notes/Summary
John Hersey

The author, John Hersey, was born in China on June 17, 1914 and spent the next 9 years there until his family returned to America. He worked as a journalist for several years after studying at Yale and Cambridge. During World War II, Hersey served as a Time magazine correspondent and later as a senior editor for Life. He was famous for his ability to discuss on an individual level the tragedies of war. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Bell for Adano, a novel portraying the Allied Forces’ occupation of Italy. His non-fictional writings on the war include Men on Batman (1942) and Into the Valley (1943), both about battles in the Pacific arena. “Hiroshima,” a factual account of atomic bomb survivors based on interviews, was published in 1946. His next major project after “Hiroshima” was a historical novel, The Wall, about the Nazi destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. The novel was critically acclaimed and is considered the first American-written novel dealing with the Holocaust.

His account of six survivors in Hiroshima was first published as an article in The New Yorker magazine in August of 1946, one year after the bomb was dropped and World War II ended. The New Yorker devoted that entire issue to “Hiroshima,” preempting any other articles or cartoons. The issue met with a tremendous response in the United States and sold out within hours. Numerous newspapers and magazines commented on Hersey’s article, and the full text was read on the radio in the U.S. and abroad. The Book of the Month Club even sent a free copy in book form to all its members. “Hiroshima” was published as a book later that same year.

A new edition was compiled forty years later, when Hersey returned to Japan to chronicle what had happened to the six main characters in that time. Hersey wrote his findings in a new final chapter, “The Aftermath,” and this edition was published in 1985. “Hiroshima” remains in print and is considered a classic of World War II storytelling.

Hersey died on March 24, 1993 at his home in Key West, Florida.

John Hersey - Commemorative Stamp
John Hersey Postage Stamp

In 2008, the U.S. Post Office honored Hersey with a commemorative stamp issue in a series honoring American Journalists.


The book starts on August 6, 1945, the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on human beings, and ends in 1985, with updates on the lives of the six survivors chronicled in the book. When the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and a few days later on Nagasaki, Japan had been at war with the United States for three and a half years. It was by then a losing fight for Japan, as resources and soldiers had been severely depleted and the civilian population was living on meager rations. The atomic bomb attacks were a final devastation to Japan’s war effort, and it surrendered unconditionally only nine days after Hiroshima’s destruction, on August 15, 1945.

For its part, the United States meant to use the atomic bomb as an extreme measure that would force Japan to give up its losing war. In World War II, Japan had waged a “total war,” in which civilians were as dedicated and indoctrinated to the national cause as were soldiers. Everyone had been taught that it was honorable to die for the Emperor, and families and communities were prepared to commit suicide rather than be taken as prisoners if the American forces were to invade. Faced with such stubborn resistance and wide-spread brainwashing, the U.S. leadership feared massive casualties on both sides if they were forced to wage a land war in Japan. To this day, the American government states this reason for its use of the atomic bomb on civilian populations.

After Japan surrendered, the U.S. set up an occupational government to purge military leaders and rebuild the country. For these first few post-war years, Americans were fascinated by their former enemies and very focused on how they could transform and revitalize Japan. It was in this environment that John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” debuted. The U.S. public was eager for the information in this factual account of atomic bomb survivors.

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Wolff, Rachel. "TheBestNotes on Hiroshima". . 09 May 2017