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Theme of Survival
One major theme of the book is survival, both of individuals and of communities. The book describes how people react in crises and what this show of their moral character. How each person chooses to rebuild their lives and also how the city of Hiroshima rebuilds itself after the disaster reveals the priorities of each person and the city as a whole. Dr. Fujii, for example, pours his life into pleasure-seeking activities for himself. He prospers financially and avoids health problems from the radiation; in this sense he "survives" well, but sacrifices closeness with his family and misses the opportunity for a fulfilled life of service. Mrs. Nakamura struggles greatly for the basic needs of survival, working odd jobs to feed her children while suffering A-bomb ailments. Yet after four decades, she has raised three happy children, achieved some material comfort, and feels at peace with herself. Having more truly confronted the sizable material, physical and psychological affects of the atomic bomb, Mrs. Nakamura in this sense has "survived" her ordeal better than Dr. Fujii has. Part of the theme of survival is the portrayal of the human spirit and the will to keep on living even in the face of so much death and destruction. Survival is also demonstrated in how life slowly returns to normalcy for most, even after they live through severe trauma. Miss Sasaki, who a year after the bomb faced a crippled leg and depressed spirit, not only overcame these limitations but blossomed into a talented, independent woman with a heart for serving others. Her "survival" is much more than continuing to exist; it is triumphant.
The survival of Hiroshima as a city and community parallels the examples of the human characters in the book. Reconstruction of buildings begins almost immediately, with support from the occupation regime. This shows the indelible energy of the people even after most of their homes and numerous family and friends are destroyed. Yet the character of the city, once it is fully rebuilt and vibrant, shows something else. Hersey describes how decades after the A-bomb fell, Hiroshima has a large entertainment district with flashing neon lights. Moreover, only one in ten residents is a hibakusha. This shows a disconnect between the cityís war-time experience and its modern personality. In "surviving" the atomic bomb, it has become something else. On the other hand, Hiroshima the community does not forget the A-bomb tragedy. Political activism demands compensation for hibakusha, for Japanís pacifism, and for a memorial in the city to remind the world of what happened there. In this sense, the city is permanently marked by its atomic experience. Perhaps the glitzy new identity of the city, described above, is an effort by the city to forget its painful past even while forced to confront it.
Theme of the Effect of War on Civilians
Written one year after the first atomic bombs were dropped on civilians (or any human beings, for that matter), the effect of total war on regular populations is a major theme of the book. Total war means no one is left untouched. This is emphasized in that even though the atomic bomb was dropped to fight the Japanese, even non-Japanese (the German Jesuits) were affected by it. Ironically, Father Kleinsorge, the German, seeks Japanese citizenship and becomes Father Takakura later in his life. Yet he states that his greatest identity is as a hibakusha, a survivor of the atomic bomb. The bombís affect, as seen in this example, is life-long and life-changing. In fact, most of the major charactersí lives illustrate that the bomb altered and influenced their civilian lives for decades until their very death.
The effect of war on civilians involves constant and fearful anticipation of the attack to come, as seen in the first chapter of the book. Since Hiroshima was one of the few major cities in Japan to be spared an air attack, fears were growing that the Americans were "saving something special" for them. People cannot live peaceful or normal lives as they are forced to be in a constant state of alert for air raids. The night before the bomb hit, for example, Mrs. Nakamura is forced to drag her three small children to an evacuation site after midnight to avoid a possible air raid. This was a frequent and exhausting ritual for her family.
When the city is surprised by the atomic bomb, family homes and businesses are summarily destroyed. Normal civilian life is completely altered and those who escape death must undergo great challenges just to survive. An entire city is transformed from everyday business and living into hoards of grotesquely wounded and thousands of destitute refugees.