Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Hiroshima has the immediacy of fiction but is factual, taken from extensive interviews with six survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, as well as from some written documents. The third-person narrative is sympathetic but almost clinically objective. John Hersey’s voice is apparent in his choice of events and details: of Japanese life, of the bomb’s devastation, of the victims’ personal reactions and feelings.

The work originally appeared with four sections, which cover increasingly longer periods of time. The first, “A Noiseless Flash,” introduces the six people, none of whom know why they lived when others died. Flashbacks and the depiction of the moment before the bomb detonated establish the characters and situations of those involved, but the focus is on the instant of the explosion and its immediate effects. Most of the six survivors are trapped by rubble but can free themselves; Dr. Terfumi Sasaki only loses his slippers and eyeglasses, while Toshiko Sasaki (no relation) is seriously injured, imprisoned by falling bookcases. Hersey emphasizes both the capricious nature of the bomb’s impact and the stunned ignorance of its victims regarding what exactly happened.

The second section, “The Fire,” describes the first several hours after the atomic bomb, as a firestorm sweeps the flattened city. Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura rescues her children and flees, like many others, to Asano Park, a relatively intact private...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Hiroshima is the account of six people—five Japanese and one German—who survived one of the twentieth century’s most cataclysmic and signal events, the dropping of the first atom bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945. Originally composed of four parts, the narrative follows the lives of these six from the first moment of “A Noiseless Flash” (part 1) to several months thereafter, when the desolated landscape has already begun to support new life, from flowers to “Panic Grass and Feverfew” (part 4). A fifth section, “The Aftermath,” written especially for a new edition published in 1985, summarizes the lives of the six over the ensuing forty years, showing them to be among the prosperous middle class of modern postwar Japan.

Using a panoramic technique evocative of cinematic methods, the narrative moves back and forth among the six survivors—a factory clerk, a tailor’s widow, a young surgeon, a middle-aged physician, a minister, and a German priest—in brief, pictorially clear segments, one or two major scenes for each survivor in each of the four parts.

Part 1 establishes, in a sort of freeze-frame, what each of the six was doing at the precise moment of the blast. The factory clerk was seated at her desk, about to chat with her office mate when the noiseless flash occurred. The tailor’s widow, having arisen early, had just peered out the kitchen window into her neighbor’s yard. The physician had just sat down to read his morning paper, while in another part of the city the priest was lying on his cot reading a Jesuit magazine. At the exact moment the bomb exploded the young surgeon was walking down a hospital corridor, while the minister had paused at the gate of a rich man’s house in the city’s western suburbs. In a...

(The entire section is 742 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Brown, Robert McAfee. “All His Losses Were His Gain,” in The New York Times Book Review. XC (May 12, 1985), p. 3.

Fiedler, Leslie. “Straddling the Wall,” in Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler, 1971.

Geismar, Maxwell. “John Hersey: The Revival of Consciousness,” in American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity, 1958.

Huse, Nancy Lyman. John Hersey and James Agee: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978. A comprehensive listing of articles and books about Hersey’s work. The introduction provides a useful critical context.

Huse, Nancy Lyman. The Survival Tales of John Hersey. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Publishing, 1983. The first chapter includes an analysis of the first four segments of Hiroshima and discusses Hersey’s intention to win the reader’s sympathy for the six survivors.

Mannix, Patrick. The Rhetoric of Antinuclear Fiction: Persuasive Strategies in Novels and Films. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1992. Brief treatment of Hiroshima within a broader discussion of the dynamic of emotional appeal.

Sanders, David. John Hersey Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Chapter 1 includes a significant discussion of Hiroshima. Also provides a strong analysis of “The Aftermath” and Hersey’s assessment of the impact of the atomic bomb.

Sanders, David. “John Hersey: War Correspondent into Novelist,” in New Voices in American Studies, 1966. Edited by Ray B. Brown et al.

Warner, John. “Novelist or Journalist?” in Harpers Magazine. CCXXXIV (May, 1967), pp. 116-117.

Yavenditti, Michael. “John Hersey and the American Conscience.” Pacific Historical Review 43 (February, 1974): 24-49. Thorough study of the reception of Hiroshima. Concludes that the book did not lead its American readers to reconsider the legitimacy of the decision to drop the bomb.