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Free Study Guide-Hiroshima by John Hersey-Free Online Book Notes Summary
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Theme of Lifeís Frailty and Unpredictability

After the atomic bomb kills 100,000 in Hiroshima, the six main characters of the book wonder why they survived while so many others perished. They reflect that it was small, unconscious, and seemingly coincidental actions that spared their lives at the moment of impact. Dr. Sasaki, for instance, was a step away from a window when the bomb flashed, thereby avoiding cuts or burns. Dr. Fujii awoke much earlier than usual to see a friend off that morning, thereby avoiding being crushed in his bed inside his hospital building. This is the minor theme of how chance can be a powerful force in life.

The theme is also reflected on how many of the characters view the rest of their lives. They see their suffering and hardships from the bombís destruction as unavoidable, nobodyís fault, and their fate. They do not have a sense of entitlement nor do they blame others for their problems. This is true especially for Mrs. Nakamura. She expresses the Japanese psyche of being resigned to hardships, articulated as "shikataga nai," or "oh well, it canít be helped" and that her experiences are nothing but her fate in life.

The theme of lifeís unpredictability is also reflected in how most of the main characters continue to suffer misfortune, difficulties, and death even after surviving the bomb. Dr. Fujii, for example, is forced to escape when the house he is staying in as a recovering bomb victim is washed down the river in a flood. This follows his Hiroshima clinicís destruction as it was blown into the river by the A-bomb. Miss Sasaki, even after so much hardship, faces her brotherís serious car accident that nearly leaves him impaired. These examples show that surviving the horrific atomic bomb attack did not entitle the characters to easy existences for the rest of their lives. Even Dr. Fujii, who purposefully seeks out pleasure to avoid the trauma of his experience, cannot escape his own mortality; he dies tragically in a freak gas leak.


The point of view of the book is that of an objective observer. The author interviews each main character, and in a journalistic fashion, knits their stories together without adding his own biases or moral judgments. This allows the reader to hear their stories as if from their own mouths, and makes the reader feel closer to the characters without the interference of a third party. The narrating author, however, does have the power to pick and choose different details to emphasize a specific theme or story line in each personís life, which may not necessarily be that individualís interpretation if he/she were to tell his/her own story in the first person.


Japanese cultural factors play a strong part in both the plot and character development of this book. The Japanese attitude toward the dead is very significant in this disaster which kills 100,000. In the third chapter, for example, we see how the Red Cross Hospital staff carefully preserves ashes of each deceased even while there are thousands of living wounded who still require treatment. Proper treatment of the dead, both in respect to the deceased person and to their family, is a moral obligation which often supercedes care for the living. Therefore, the staff is careful to label each corpse and to package some of their ashes for relatives to pick up later. This attitude toward the dead also influences how the living from Hiroshima are labeled after the bombing, as seen in chapter five. The term "survivors" was rejected in favor a more neutral "explosion-affected persons" so as not to dishonor those who had died. Since the dead were sacred, in effect the living received less credit for the hardships they had endured to keep themselves alive.

Another important cultural element is how many of the main characters, and much of the city as a whole, reacted to both the hardships they suffered from the bomb as well as the moral question of the bombís use. They expressed the Japanese psyche of being resigned to hardships, articulated as "shikataga nai," or "oh well, it canít be helped." This comes from the Buddhist belief that emptying oneself of worldly thoughts, both good and bad, leads to understanding and contentment. It is also a product of a strong central government that is often unresponsive to citizensí needs, as well as a disbelief that such horrors could have been caused by real human beings. Hersey point out that to Mrs. Nakamura, for example, the bombing thus felt much like a natural disaster that was unavoidable.

Because of the relative formality of the Japanese culture, the characters in the book are usually referred to by their last names. First names are rarely used, and only by mothers to their children or between affectionate spouses or intimate friends. Other elements of language use in the book include Japanese terms such as "hibakusha," or "explosion-affected persons."

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