Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Part of John Hersey’s goal in writing Hiroshima was to show that there was no unified political or national response to the bombing of Hiroshima, but that there was one definite effect on the people affected by it: they came together as a community. As Hersey states in Chapter Four, “One feeling they did seem to share, however, was a curious kind of elated community spirit . . . a pride in the way they and their fellow-survivors had stood up to a dreadful ordeal.” This community spirit pervades the book, most likely because Hersey chooses to emphasize it over other things. For example, very few of the situations Hersey describes revolve around families. Aside from the few mothers and children who are featured (the Nakamuras, the motherless Kataoka children, Mrs. Kamai and her dead baby), most of the people whom we encounter are on their own. The characters who have families do not live with them; Dr. Fujii’s wife, for example, lives in Osaka. However, we do read about people taking care of one another on the riverbank at Asano Park and in the East Parade Ground, providing water, food, and comfort as though they were family. Since the bomb destroyed real families and homes, the citizens of Hiroshima are forced to come together and make a new kind of family. Father Kleinsorge, whose birth family is presumably back in Germany, creates a family out of his companionship with his fellow priests and later, with Miss Sasaki, the Nakamuras, the Kataoka children and many other people he encounters in the period following the bombing.
Although the people of Hiroshima come together as a community in response to the bombing, as victims, they suffer alone. Many references throughout the book depict how the people have severe, hideous injuries but do not complain or cry out; they suffer silently. Hersey suggests that this is a uniquely Japanese characteristic—that Japanese individuals attach great importance to not disturbing the larger group and do not call attention to their own needs or pain. The book relates that thousands of people die all around, and yet no one expresses anger or calls for retribution. Father Kleinsorge, a foreigner, is especially amazed by this attitude in Chapter Two: “. . . the silence in the grove by the river, where hundreds of gruesomely wounded suffered together, was one of the most dreadful and awesome phenomena of his whole existence.” We witness this attitude with Mr. Tanimoto, who is unharmed and runs through the city in search of his wife and child. As he passes the masses of injured people he apologizes to them for not suffering more himself. In the stories he shares later in Chapter Four, he cites a few people, including thirteen-year-old girls, who died with noble visions that they were sacrificed for their country, and were not concerned for themselves or bitter over their unlucky fate. This stoicism becomes a major source of pride for the Japanese people—they could be strong and supportive of their country and receive whatever hardship they were given with powerful silence.
Hiroshima testifies to the unnatural, unbelievable power of the atomic bomb. The bomb turns day into night, conjures up rain and winds, and destroys beings from the inside as well as from the outside. When the Japanese learn how the bomb was created—by releasing the power inside an atom—they call it the genshi bakudan, or original child bomb. This name seems to recall the bomb’s biological rather than man-made origin, emphasizing that when men made this bomb they were dealing with forces far beyond their own power. When Miss Sasaki notices the new, lush greenery growing up through the ruins in Chapter Four it “[gives] her the creeps” because it almost seems like nature is impatient—it cannot wait to take over once humankind has destroyed itself and its own civilization. Ironically, the most awesome achievement of man causes the land to revert back to a pre-human state. These images seem to convey that man’s harnessing of the destructive power of atoms may lead to unknown and unnatural consequences. The narrative conveys the unsettling sense that the creation and use of the atom bomb crosses an important line between the natural and unnatural world. Also, the images of the greenery growing in Hiroshima show that even if the unnatural occurs, and mankind tries to control nature, nature will regain control in the end.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Although we never get to know any of the people who died when the bomb detonated over Hiroshima, every character we meet inevitably has had to deal with the death of close family members and friends, as well as being surrounded by death on a massive scale. Most of the deaths in the book take place out of sight. Mrs. Nakamura’s noisy neighbor is there one minute, gone the next; the severely burned people that Mr. Tanimoto helps to the shore one night are drowned by the next morning. But even though Hersey does not give the reader many direct views of death, its presence pervades the narrative. There is a constant, oppressive, and almost suffocating feeling that death is all around.
The fact that the six main characters of Hiroshima survive the bombing by chance speaks to the power of chance in their lives. Whether they attribute their survival to fate, luck, or a higher power, the fact is that all six were just as vulnerable to the bomb as the 100,000 people who died. Mrs. Nakamura was one house away from her neighbor who was killed instantly; Dr. Sasaki could have been on a later train; Dr. Fujii could have drowned; Miss Sasaki could have been completely crushed by the bookcase that fell on her; Father Kleinsorge could have been outside the mission house if he were feeling better. Any of them could have died when the typhoon swept through the city a month later. As Hersey presents the story, none of the characters question their fates, struggle with survivor’s guilt, or reinvent themselves after the bomb. Throughout the narrative there seems to be a basic acceptance of the fact that life is capricious and random. The bomb made no value judgments about whom or what it destroyed, and the people do not seem to make value judgments about who survived—the catastrophe just happened. As Mrs. Nakamura says about the bomb in Chapter Four, “Shikata ga nai,” or, “It can’t be helped.”
Starting with the “noiseless flash” and continuing through the lingering effects of radiation sickness forty years later, the people of Hiroshima are faced with many unexplained phenomena. In the days after the bomb hits, nobody knows what could have caused such tremendous destruction. Theories are developed and explored, but mostly people are left with ignorance and confusion for an entire week, until the news starts to spread that it was an atomic bomb. Yet even when the facts are out, since this was the first atomic bomb ever used as a weapon, nobody—the Americans, the Japanese, or anyone else—has any idea as to what the short- or long-term effects will be on the land and the people. Doctors are faced with baffling symptoms, such as the spot hemorrhages, and injuries that will not heal, such as Father Kleinsorge’s cuts. Seemingly healthy people, such as Mr. Tanimoto, are overcome by exhaustion; Mrs. Nakamura’s hair starts to fall out; and wildflowers begin to proliferate amid the ruins. Compounding the effects of the deaths and devastation is the fearful lack of knowledge about what is to come, and insecurity regarding the future health of the city.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The blanket of new greenery that Miss Sasaki finds breaking through the ruins of the city in Chapter Four is both a symbol of renewal and regeneration as it is an ironic symbol of man’s simultaneous achievement and failure. While people like Miss Sasaki will take years to heal their bodies and minds, nature is not conquered or cowed by the bomb.
Dr. Sasaki spends much of his time after the bombing trying to remove the thick, ugly scars called keloids that have grown over bad burns suffered by bomb victims. In time, he and the other doctors come to realize that much of their work has done more harm than good. In this way the keloids symbolize the continuous difficulties the people of Hiroshima have in trying to deal with the damage wrought by the bomb. They are overwhelmed and confused by the attack and its biological and social aftereffects. The keloids also play an important role in the sad story of the Hiroshima Maidens, the young, scarred women who are taken to the U.S. to get plastic surgery. When they return to Japan they find that they have become objects of “public curiosity” as well as “envy and spite.” There are many social effects of keloids: employers do not want to hire people with such scars, and people do not want their children to marry people who possess these symptoms of radiation sickness. The keloids mark people as survivors of the attack, and they serve as a reminder of the destruction. These scars are a glaring physical symbol of both the damage inflicted by the bomb and the naïve ineptitude of those trying to heal Japan’s wounds after the war.
Although in many works of literature water is a symbol of purity and life, the water in Hiroshima is a cause of death and disease. When Mrs. Nakamura and her children drink from the river, they end up vomiting the rest of the day because it has been polluted. Mr. Tanimoto expends all his energy transporting injured people across the river to Asano Park, but many of them end up drowning in the rising tide. Floods from a terrible storm wash away hospitals, houses, and bridges that had survived the bombing. Because of these disasters the water in Hiroshima becomes a symbol of the invisible pervasiveness of devastation. Something that is supposed to be pure and uncorrupted—something that should give life—is instead causing death and destruction. The fact that the bomb is able to spoil something as elemental and natural as water speaks to its unnatural power.