Study Guide

The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer

by Florence Anthony

The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” subtitled “A Fiction,” presents the story of a theoretical physicist who, in the early 1940’s with the threat of Japanese attack looming, was selected to head a team of scientists to work on atom bomb development, despite his contributions to left-wing organizations. Written in Oppenheimer’s voice, the poem describes the evolution of his passion for science as well as his justifications for the role that he played in developing the uranium bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and the plutonium bomb that decimated Nagasaki.

The speaker describes his shedding of consciousness at Los Alamos, where the bombs were created, as attaining “enlightenment,” where he “threw off the night like an old skin,” and his eyes “filled with light.” The moment that he “fell to the ground” is presented as a spiritual experience. He compares himself to the bomb, describing how “some say” that when he hit, “there was an explosion.” In this identification with the bomb, Oppenheimer shows how much of his life had been consumed by this project, almost as if he had become one with the bomb. However, he also describes how “there was only silence” rocking him “in its cradle of cumulus cloud,” creating a false image of peacefulness after the destruction.

To further justify his participation in this event, the persona of Oppenheimer suggests, “It is better to leap into the void./...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Cramer, Steven. Review of Fate, by Ai. Poetry 159 (November, 1991): 108-111.

Kilcup, Karen. “Dialogues of the Self: Toward a Theory of (Re)reading Ai.” Journal of Gender Studies 7, no. 1 (March, 1998): 5-20.

Monaghan, Pat. Review of Fate, by Ai. Booklist 87 (January 1, 1991): 902.

Ostriker, Alicia. Review of Sin, by Ai. Poetry 144 (January, 1987): 231-237.

Seidman, Hugh. Review of Killing Floor, by Ai. The New York Times Book Review, July 8, 1979, 14.

Seshadri, Vijay. Review of Dread, by Ai. The New York Times Book Review, May 4, 2003.