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

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PLOT NOTES - LITERATURE SUMMARY: HIROSHIMA BY JOHN HERSEY

PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS

The book is a non-fictional compilation of six separate interviews, written in narrative form. The structure is a chronological narrative that follows the characters’ lives, from the morning the bomb fell to forty years later. Hersey jumps from one character to the next and then back again, in each chapter, to nurture the reader’s interest in each sub-plot.

This first chapter introduces the six main characters of the book. Hersey carefully details their precise locations and actions at the time the bomb flashed. This paints a vivid picture for the reader, and emphasizes Hersey’s point that it was the small, unconscious actions that spared each from death or more serious injury. In this chapter, Hersey impresses upon the reader how quickly everything changed when the atomic bomb hits. In one instant, the entire city switches from common, every-day tasks to a panicked struggle for survival. Although the entire work is factual, Hersey emphasizes certain points of his interviewee’s stories for story-telling effect. For instance, it is ironic that Miss Sasaki spends time planning a funeral at work that morning. The funeral, scheduled for ten a.m., would not only never take place but would be utterly forgotten in the flood of deaths from the bomb that was about to be dropped. Another irony Hersey notes is that while the dropping of the bomb over Hiroshima signifies a technological breakthrough into the “atomic age,” Miss Suzuki is actually crushed and wounded by books, fairly primitive objects compared to this brand new weapon. A third irony is that a number of the characters remember feeling relief at the all-clear signal that sounds at eight o’clock that morning. Just fifteen minutes later, a completely unfamiliar type of bomb is dropped on them. Hersey is showing the reader just how unexpected and undetectable the nuclear attack is for the citizens of Hiroshima.

In the second chapter, the reader sees the initial horrors of the atomic experience from the eyes of the survivors. The significance of the book’s writing style becomes clear in this context: Remarkable and shocking events are told in such a straightforward manner, without commentary, that they are almost more shocking. For example, Father Kleinsorge assumes that the Hoshijima women were dead under their collapsed house, and begins pulling out one body by the hair. When the body protests in pain, he realizes she is alive. The reader is further told that both women are largely unhurt. This small event is quite impactful for the reader after hearing of so many in Hiroshima left under their houses to burn to death, with no one even trying to ascertain if they are still alive. We realize that Father Kleinsorge could have easily left the women in their buried state since he assumes them dead. The fact that they were not only alive but also in good condition shocks us into thinking about the hundreds who no doubt live through the initial blast but perish unnecessarily for lack of rescue.

The uncertainty and fear from the bomb’s devastation is not simply a one-time occurrence. The survivors continue to be terrified throughout the day as they wonder what had happened. When people become nauseated, they think the Americans have dropped gas to poison them. When they hear weather planes overhead that afternoon, they fear the Americans are returning to attack them again. In addition, most surviving citizens are badly wounded and nauseated, without adequate food, shelter, or water.

This chapter also explores the phenomenon of people’s reaction to the massive suffering around them and their own survival needs. Besides Rev. Tanimoto, Father Kleinsorge, and Dr. Sasaki, the other main characters quickly become self-absorbed. The chapter describes how this is the case for the whole city. Although everywhere people are trapped under burning buildings, no one heeds their desperate cries for help. Hersey attributes this self-focused behavior on the overwhelming human need juxtaposed to people’s limited powers and their state of shock.

In the third chapter, the reader witnesses the first installment of the Japanese government’s inadequate response to the atomic disaster. It fails to assist the survivors in both the first days after the bombing and the months and years of rebuilding their lives and ravaged bodies. It takes days for other cities to send in doctors, a naval ship promises help but never comes back, and the authorities withhold information about what has happened. Hiroshima’s people are largely left to fend for themselves, at least for the first few days. The government also refuses to allow accurate information about the bomb to reach the people of the city. As a result, rumors are rampant as to what kind of weapon was used.

The people of Hiroshima, along with all of Japan, hear in this chapter the Emperor’s voice for the first time, over the radio. This alone would be earth-shattering for a Japanese, taught all their life that the Emperor is God-like and unapproachable at a human level. The Emperor’s announcement of Japan’s surrender, however, is even more significant, as it changes their focus instantaneously from war efforts to peace and rebuilding efforts. This shows the Japanese people’s utter devotion to the Emperor during the war and the power of his words on their individual lives.

Another important scene in this chapter is when Rev. Tanimoto reads a psalm to the dying Mr. Tanaka. This illustrates how the bomb humbled all its victims to the same helpless state. Mr. Tanaka, proud, wealthy and an enemy of Rev. Tanimoto, discovers in the wake of the bomb that his former status does nothing to gain him medical treatment. About to die, he calls for Rev. Tanimoto to comfort him with religion. Rev. Tanimoto’s service to Mr. Tanaka shows his pastor heart and Christian forgiveness, as well his recognition that all people deserve help when they are in desperate condition.


The strange title for chapter four, “Panic Grass and Feverfew,” is derived from two of the many types of plants that spring up to cover Hiroshima’s ruins soon after the bombing. The bomb stimulates the underground organs of vegetation, and within a month of the disaster, fresh greenery covers fallen buildings, ruined houses, and even charred trees. The juxtaposition of new life, even plant life, with dead buildings and human ashes symbolizes how life must go on for the survivors of Hiroshima, and how they, too, quickly return to living even after so much is destroyed.

The chapter title is also a play-on-words with the symptoms of radiation sickness that most of the main characters are experiencing. A high “fever” is one of the most common symptoms suffered by Hiroshima survivors, and some of the characters experience mild “panic” when faced with the financial hardships, physical limitations, and lack of accurate information that plague their post-bomb lives.

This chapter depicts the main characters facing the hard task of finally rebuilding their lives, after the initial devastation is behind them. In the year following their personal and community catastrophe, each continues to be affected by the bombing, some more seriously than others. Perhaps the most well-off, financially and physically, is Dr. Fujii. Yet even he meets further misfortune. This reminds the reader that simply because they survived such a monumental trauma does not mean that the characters are blessed with easy lives afterward.

This chapter also begins to mention the city’s thoughts on the ethics of the bomb, which the author narrates more fully in the final chapter. Many are neutral in their moral judgment about the use of the atomic bomb. Along with their indifference, they also hesitate to think about it very much at all. The author speculates that this may be due to their fear of and trauma from the bomb; they prefer to forget their ordeal altogether. The reason may also come from the Japanese psyche of being resigned to hardships, expressed as “shikataga nai,” or “oh well, it can’t be helped.”

Forty years after the A-bomb destroys the city, Hersey returns to Hiroshima to re-interview the book’s six main characters. He uses this material to fill in the gaps of their lives from 1946, where he completed his original volume, to 1984; the result is the book’s final chapter. The reader gets a much broader perspective of both the bomb’s societal impact as well as its powerful effect on individuals over an entire lifetime.

The bombing was not simply a disaster that faded away when the rubble was removed and buildings rebuilt. It changed the course of people’s lives, shortening some, as in the case of Father Kleinsorge, or led them in a new direction, as in the case of Miss Sasaki’s religious conversion. Hersey carefully weaves together and selects pertinent details from each characters’ forty years’ experience. In telling Mrs. Nakamura’s story, he makes the point that although her quality of life gradually improves over the years, she can never really escape her atom bomb experience, as her body remains weak.

The theme for Dr. Sasaki’s life is that he tries so hard to forget, yet cannot fully. He is still haunted by his failure to properly label all the dead at the Red Cross Hospital, and in his 40s he is forced to reckon with his own physical vulnerabilities as a hibakusha. Father Kleinsorge’s is a story of a devoted pastor and missionary whose A-bomb symptoms greatly slow his work but who never puts his own frailties before the needs of others.

The priest’s adoption of Japanese citizenship is a telling demonstration of his dedication to the Japanese people.

Hersey’s account of Miss Sasaki’s life is perhaps the most inspirational of all the main characters. Her choices after surviving the A-bomb demonstrate that the disaster strengthened her instead of making her bitter. Her admirable work with orphans, the elderly and the dying uses her talents to the fullest; she most likely would not have had these opportunities to blossom had she been spared the bomb, married the fiancée who rejected her, and settled down as a typical Japanese housewife.

In contrast, Dr. Fujii’s post-bomb years are perhaps the most self-serving and tragic for the reader. Hersey supposes that Dr. Fujii’s pleasure-seeking lifestyle may have served as a way to forget his psychological trauma from the bombing. It is significant that Dr. Fujii is the only one of the major characters to avoid any physical illnesses from his radiation exposure. Yet tragically, by the end of his life he is a vegetable because of a freak gas leak accident that was perhaps due to his eagerness to move into his new grandiose home. Dr. Fujii’s life story contrasts greatly with the other characters’, markedly Miss Sasaki’s. While the atomic tragedy strengthens her and spurs her on to help others, Dr. Fujii sinks further into a self-absorbed life that keeps him distant even from his own family.

Rev. Tanimoto’s story is marked with well-intentioned efforts for Hiroshima and world peace, but also with a stark disconnection from the feelings of the people of Hiroshima and the actual developments in peace efforts in the city. In this sense, Rev. Tanimoto’s life is one of good intentions but few results.

Hersey chooses Rev. Tanimoto as the last character in the book to talk about. Hersey makes a specific point as he closes both the book and the narration of Rev. Tanimoto’s life: Forty years after the atomic bomb was dropped, the world’s memory of the horrors of Hiroshima is fading.

Hersey ends the book somewhat mundanely, discussing the retired and aging Rev. Tanimoto’s daily habits. Yet it is this transformation of the active and passionate Rev. Tanimoto into a common old man that powerfully illustrates the slide of the world consciousness from moral outrage at the use of the bomb to indifference and even proliferation of nuclear weapons.

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