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.