Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544
Hiroshima is credited with inaugurating the “nonfiction novel” and anticipating the movement known as New Journalism. John Hersey—already a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and well-known war correspondent—uses many of the techniques of fiction to make this true story immediate and emotionally effective. He originally planned to present his own observations of the ruined city, but he was inspired by Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) to structure an interwoven narrative featuring several principal personages.
The two women and four men are vivid, distinct individuals, but they also stand for the hundred thousand killed and even more injured or made homeless by the bomb, providing an emotional impact that numbers lack. They function as representative Everyman characters, with the same concerns, needs, and sentiments as Hersey’s readers. The actions of the six people during and after the bomb blast follow naturally from their characters as Hersey views them, a natural mixture of fear and courage, cooperation and self-interest.
The book is also notable for its concrete observation, presented primarily in an objective, even clinical tone. By not interpreting the scenes, Hersey leaves the reader to form an impression, rather than be told—but that impression is subtly guided by what the author presents. For example, he further creates sympathy through homey, telling details, such as Mrs. Nakamura keeping her prized sewing machine safe by putting it into a water tank, only to retrieve it and find it rusted solid. When Hersey is directly didactic, especially in the final half of the book, he actually conveys the book’s lessons less effectively.
Some have suggested that Hersey’s understatement may be attributable to the fact that the grief was not his to speak about and that the survivors themselves, in addition to any cultural reticence and the barrier of speaking through a translator, were still too exhausted and psychologically troubled for histrionics when interviewed. For whatever reason, the result is quite strong, and the awesome and awful subject matter keeps the work from ever being pedestrian.
Hiroshima repeatedly examines four themes: the value but unpredictability of human survival, the importance of awareness and communication, the necessity of cooperation, and the peril that humanity faces from destructive technologies. All of these permeate Hersey’s novels and journalism; they also shaped the author’s life of writing and of activism in causes ranging from education to civil rights. He is often called an existentialist writer because of his emphasis on human freedom and responsibility, and Hiroshima shows his high regard for the common people, surviving and helping others without control over events, often without even knowing the real situation. The most extreme and grotesque suffering is shown not from the point of view of the victim, but from the perspective of the person helping those victims, whose compassion helps Hersey avoid sensationalism.
Some see Hiroshima as a tract for nuclear disarmament, while others see it as merely descriptive and hence too accepting of the bomb’s reality. Actually, the question that Hersey quotes from a Jesuit report—“whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose”—is exactly that: not an answer, but a question, which Hersey finds imperative for all people to confront for themselves.