Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 974

In 1945, John Hersey was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for A Bell for Adano (1944), a novel based on his observations as a reporter in Italy and characterized by attention to realistic detail and psychological insight. (The novel led to a lawsuit filed against the author by an Army officer who felt that his experiences to some extent paralleled those of a character in the book.) Hersey demonstrated anew his powers as a reporter and a writer when he documented the experiences of survivors of the atomic bomb in his nonfiction account Hiroshima. Hersey’s interest in the Far East, which is evident both in Hiroshima and in his novel The White Lotus (1965), probably stemmed from his having spent his childhood in China, where his parents were missionaries. In his years as a professor of literature at Yale University, Hersey wrote fiction as well as nonfiction works, including The Writer’s Craft (1974).

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Hersey’s account of six survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was initially written as a three-part series for The New Yorker, but the editors of the magazine instead decided to print the entire text in the issue dated August 31, 1946. The first edition and its subsequent printings presented four sections: “A Noiseless Flash,” “The Fire,” “Details Are Being Investigated,” and “Panic Grass and Feverfew.” Each section dramatically presented the experiences of the six survivors in a chronology, respectively, of moments, hours, days, and months. A fifth section, “The Aftermath,” which marked the fortieth anniversary of the bombing, detailed the biographies of the six survivors during the years following the war.

Although it is nonfiction, Hersey’s account uses such structures and devices common to fiction as scene-by-scene construction, dialogue that reveals character, third-person point of view, symbolic detail, and theme. Although time determines the five major divisions of the book, each scene is recounted from the perspective of one of the survivors. Hersey describes, for example, Mr. Tanimoto’s feelings as he attempts to swim across the river, praying all the while for God to help him and thinking “It would be nonsense for me to be drowned when I am the only uninjured one.” Hersey thus establishes Tanimoto’s sense of purpose and his expectation of God’s order.

Symbolic details fill the book. When the atomic bomb destroys Miss Sasaki’s office building, Hersey concludes his description with the comment “There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.” The books symbolize the scientific knowledge that killed thousands of people in an instant, whose deaths were the cost of having eaten of the fruit of the tree.

Another important literary device in Hiroshima is Hersey’s fine irony. When Mr. Tanimoto describes the morning of the bombing as “perfectly clear and so warm that the day promised to be uncomfortable,” the understated “uncomfortable” capitalizes on the readers’ knowledge of the horrors to follow. In another ironic passage, Hersey notes that after the bombing, Father Kleinsorge “had to leave the buried ones to die,” shockingly reversing the expected pattern. Irony also underscores Hersey’s description of the plants that grew in the weeks following the bombing: “Over everything . . . was a blanket of fresh, vivid, lush, optimistic green; the verdancy rose even from the foundations of ruined houses.” This scene “horrifie[s] and amaze[s]” Miss Sasaki as she is carried through the city on her way to Red Cross Hospital. The “optimistic green” contrasts starkly with the outlook of Miss Sasaki, crippled and alone.

Another pattern that emerges in the book is a fairy-tale language and mode of description that suggests the powerlessness of small figures in a global script. When the bomb explodes, two descriptions in particular reinforce the childlike status of the survivors. When Mrs. Nakamura “seemed to fly into the next room over the raised sleeping platform, pursued by parts of her house,” Hersey describes the parts of the house pursuing her as in a fairy-tale transformation of an inanimate object. He describes Dr. Fujii pinned under crossbeams “like a morsel suspended between two huge chopsticks,” again employing a description of vulnerability suited to a child’s tale.

Hersey fits many of his survivors into the thematic pattern of the journey of a hero who undergoes trials and hardships that lead to rebirth and transformation in a new community. Miss Sasaki, for instance, who in the months following the bombing is described as a passive sufferer, develops into an adult with a sense of purpose in her community. Her transformation through faith leads to her rebirth as Sister Dominique, a nun competent in institutional management but strongest in sustaining others through fatal illness and comforting them when they are dying. Dr. Sasaki experiences a rebirth after nearly dying from his surgery: “Haunted by the loneliness he had felt when he thought he was dying, he now did his best to move closer to his wife and his children.” A hero’s truth contained in Dr. Sasaki’s experience can be explained as the necessity of participation. Although his efforts to help the wounded after the bombing had certainly fit the term “heroic,” Dr. Sasaki experiences his own transformation only after he feels the presence of death within himself.

Perhaps the most important theme of Hiroshima is memory. The recollected lives of six people call upon every reader to remember. In a compelling spur to recollection, Hersey reports at regular intervals and in italics the dates of nations’ first test explosions of new nuclear weapons, brief reminders that compose an inescapable knocking on the readers’ collective conscience. In the final description of arguably the most dynamic of the six survivors, Mr. Tanimoto, Hersey concludes by noting that Mr. Tanimoto’s “memory, like the world’s, was getting spotty.” The book stands as Hersey’s goad to memory and conscience.

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Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)