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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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Hiroshima!