Free Study Guide: Hiroshima by John Hersey - Notes / Book Summary|
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PLOT NOTES - LITERATURE SUMMARY: HIROSHIMA BY JOHN HERSEY
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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Wolff, Rachel. "TheBestNotes on Hiroshima".
. 09 May 2017