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.