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 estate on the river. Toshiko Sasaki is finally dug out, but she receives no medical help, waiting under a lean-to with two others who are horribly wounded. The Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto finds his wife, who was elsewhere when the bomb fell, but primarily dedicates himself to helping others, as do Drs. Masakusa Fujii and Terfumi Sasaki and Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge. The available medical care and water rations are woefully insufficient.
The third section, “Details Are Being Investigated,” continues the stories of survival, heroism, fear, injury, and death. The effects of radiation poisoning begin to show; there are rumors, but little is known about this peculiar bomb attack. Citizens return to the ruins, retrieving any personal belongings remaining. The surrender of Japan, which ends the chapter, seems almost an anticlimax for the sick, exhausted people of Hiroshima.
“Panic Grass and Feverfew,” although comparable in length to the other sections, covers a full year, showing longer-term results of the atomic bomb. Its title ironically combines references to the plants that, spurred by radioactivity, cover the city in lush green and to the physical and mental problems lingering after the explosion, from anxiety to the deadly fevers and damage to the blood of radiation sickness. The six protagonists recover, but all face mental and physical scars. Hersey ends with the question of whether such warfare is ever justified.
On the fortieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Hersey released a new edition with an added section, “The Aftermath.” The six survivors are still tired and ill, although most have found some personal modus vivendi. Hersey discusses the world’s failed attempts to restrict the testing of atomic weapons, symbolized by Kiyoshi Tanimoto’s mostly unsuccessful career as a peace activist.
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...
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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 series of flashbacks the account returns the reader to the beginning of each person’s day, to the sequences of events and details leading each to that precise moment.
Part 2, “The Fire,” records the progress each makes toward staying alive after the blast. Noting the testimony of each person, the narrative follows the six not in the order established in the previous section but in dramatic sequence, beginning with the minister, who runs toward the city to find his family, while the tailor’s widow, buried in debris, frees herself and, after gathering her nearly naked children, flees with them to a nearby wood. Sometime later the German priest with two of his injured confreres arrives in the wood and begins tending to some parishioners. The physician after the explosion ran to his hospital, only to find it blasted into the river on the banks of which it once stood. Without his equipment, himself bleeding from cuts, he comforts as many of the wounded as he can and waits in the water for the fires to burn out. The young surgeon has reached his family’s house five miles from the blast, passing scores of injured and dying along the way, while the factory clerk lies buried for hours until a relief party rescues her.
Part 3, “Details Are Being Investigated,” continues the account up to the evening of the first day of the explosion, once again following a different order from parts 1 and 2. This section begins with the minister and priest, who begin to help the many wounded. The minister finds a boat and begins ferrying people across the river to the safety of the wood. The surgeon has been working at the hospital without sleep for many hours, and the widow returns to the heart of the city to look for the rest of her family. Gradually, the authorities begin to speculate on the nature of the bomb.
Part 4, “Panic Grass and Feverfew,” opens on the morning of August 18, twelve days after the explosion. Some of the survivors begin to experience radiation sickness, though they do not yet know its cause. The priest is taken with a high fever. Rescued, the factory clerk is taken to the hospital, where she gradually recovers after weeks of pain. The widow’s hair begins falling out, and the minister succumbs to great fatigue. This section passes swiftly over the next few weeks, gradually shifting to a depiction of how the Japanese population, including its scientists, ultimately identifies the nature of the experience and comes to an understanding of what really happened on the morning of August 6, 1945.
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.