Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Hiroshima Analysis

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

What strikes the reader immediately about Hiroshima is the controlled tone of the work. As one of the earliest accounts of a momentous event in human history, the book avoids a wide-eyed, sensational presentation of destruction and horror that would befit more the purpose of propaganda than truth. Instead, John Hersey maintains the disciplined objectivity of the journalist. Anticipating by some twenty years the technique of the so-called New Journalism by which the “true” story is presented in the narrative format of a novel, Hersey has meshed the separate interviews into a narrative whole by cutbacks and dramatic juxtapositions which result in a unified story of character rather than of event. By avoiding a concentration on clinical or pathological descriptions of sickness and torment and by selecting scenes in which the survivors prevail over their circumstances, Hersey has created an account of courage and heroism particularly meaningful for readers of the twentieth century. With the supposed literary demise of the heroic figure and this century’s preoccupation with the antihero, the victim alienated from and destroyed by his society, Hiroshima stands as a philosophical antipode.

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Yet the book makes its positive statement without reference to religion or a code of morality. The six survivors are heroic, but not because of their virtue. Neither the priest nor the minister, for example, calls upon God; there is no judgment, no conduct reflecting a moral program. Rather, these six—representatives of all survivors—demonstrate humanity’s ability to go on, to endure, to prevail. Their survival, Hiroshima suggests, supersedes the event itself. The bomb is a fact of nature, like an earthquake, fire, or flood, but it is not the end.

It is interesting to note that the American novelist William Faulkner enunciated just such a view of mankind in 1950 in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in which he declared that in spite of the threat of nuclear destruction man will prevail. Hersey’s Hiroshima affirms this view graphically, with its understated tone, allowing the reader to reach that conclusion through the lives of the characters.

As for part 5, written some forty years later, it is remarkably consistent in tone with the original sections, but its effect is blunted by the summary method in which the characters’ lives and fortunes are updated to 1985. The survivors’ successes— implicit in their strength of character in the first four parts—is here patently explained; though they still possess the dignity that marked them in 1945, they now appear overly bourgeois. Too secure, their lives lack the conflict of adversity; thus, this section, for all of its consistency of tone, lacks intensity and strikes the reader as anticlimactic.

This story of human dignity is a classic example of the reportorial mastery of language. Hersey uses adjectives, for example, not for their emotional effect but rather for their pictorial clarity. As such, they are basic, objective, relatively free of connotative values. As sheer narrative, the book’s achievement is in the telling of the story without emotion and letting that emotion, the pain and glory of being human, come through the event.

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