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KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS
This book takes place almost exclusively in the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
Hiroshima was built on a delta, with several rivers running through the heart of the city. During World War II, where the book begins, Hiroshima was a major industrial and military center that had thus far been spared the devastating air attacks that other cities had suffered. The book outlines the rebuilding of the city after it was leveled by the atomic bomb.
By the story’s end, in the 1980s, Hiroshima returned to a bustling commercial and industrial city, only now with a sprawling entertainment district and neon lights. The transformation of the setting from a busy wartime city to a destroyed rubble and back to an even greater metropolis is a key element of the book.
LIST OF CHARACTERS
Miss Toshiko Sasaki
Miss Sasaki is a personnel clerk at the East Asia Tin Works factory. She is in her early twenties and lives with her parents and young sibling at the time of the blast. Her left leg is severely injured when bookshelves fall on her from the impact of the bomb, and she is left crippled. She has a strong spirit, however, and overcomes her hardships to become a Catholic nun who is very active in helping orphaned children.
Dr. Masakazu Fujii
Dr. Fujii is a middle-aged physician who is comfortable financially since he owns his own private hospital. Being fairly self-absorbed, he enjoys fine whiskey, relaxation, and the company of foreigners. He is not completely unsympathetic to those around him, but throughout the book is fairly focused on himself. His hospital is completely destroyed in the blast and he is moderately injured, but he recovers both his health and fortune. He lives comfortably as a doctor for many years after the bomb until he is tragically disabled and by a freak gas leak.
Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura
Mrs. Nakamura is a tailor’s widow with three young children, whose husband has died in the war. She struggles to make ends meet both before and after the atomic attack by using her husband’s sewing machine to get tailoring work. She suffers mild radiation sickness for most of her life, which makes it very difficult for her to support her children, but four decades after the bomb was dropped, she is an active citizen whose children have grown and found happiness.
Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge
Father Keliensorge is a thirty-eight year-old German missionary priest with the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). He loves the Japanese people and is committed to his work in Hiroshima but feels uncomfortable with the xenophobia of war-time Japan. He incurs only small cuts in the blast, but suffers years later from debilitating effects of the radiation, and dies in the 1970s with a loyal Japanese nurse by his side. Immediately after the bomb hits, he focuses on helping the wounded. Over the years, he develops an even greater dedication to the Japanese which leads him to seek citizenship and adopt the Japanese name of Father Makoto Takakura.
Dr. Terufumi Sasaki
Dr. Sasaki is an idealistic, young surgeon working at the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital. (No relation to Ms. Sasaki, above). He is the only uninjured doctor from the bomb, and in the chaotic aftermath, he treats thousands of victims from all over the city for three days straight with no sleep. After 5 years of continuing to treat bomb victims at the Red Cross Hospital, he escapes from the memories of the attack by starting his own private clinic outside of Hiroshima. He prospers greatly and tries to forget that he is a hibakusha, or bomb victim.
Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto
Rev. Tanimoto is a hard-working and thoughtful pastor. He is largely unhurt by the blast, and spends the first several days after the attack compassionately caring for the wounded and destitute of the city. He studied theology in Atlanta and corresponded with American friends until the war broke out, and after the war ends he returns to the U.S. several times to raise money for various Hiroshima peace causes. He becomes out of touch with the feelings of most Hiroshima citizens, however, and is criticized for his work.
The Dead and Dying Masses
Final estimates say that 100,000 died in the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima. Many died instantly but thousands and thousands suffered for several hours to a few days before succumbing to extreme radiation and/or graphic wounds. Hersey depicts these suffering masses from the eyes of his six main characters. He emphasizes how most survivors were unwilling to help those around them due to the sheer volume of need. Of the six main characters, Father Kleinsorge, Dr. Sasaki and Reverend Tanimoto actively assist the dying, but even they are frequently overwhelmed by the magnitude of the suffering.
Mr. Fukai is secretary of the Catholic diocese. After he sees the fires resulting from the bomb, he refuses to escape with Father Kliensorge and the others. Father Kleinsorge is forced to carry him on his back for many blocks, until Mr. Fukai escapes and runs back toward the fires. The group never sees him again and assumes he immolated himself in the flames.
Mrs. Nakamura’s Children
Toshio, a ten year-old boy, Yaeko, an eight year-old girl, and Myeko, a five year-old girl. They suffer radiation sickness for some months but overcome their trauma to live productive lives.
Other Jesuit Priests
Together with Father Kleinsorge, they try to care for the wounded and orphaned of Hiroshima.
Father Kleinsorge’s nurse, cook and constant companion in his weakening and dying days. They develop a close and loyal relationship.
An American editor who helps Reverend Tanimoto raise money for peace and other causes realated to the Hiroshima atomic attack.