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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
The book is a non-fictional compilation of six separate interviews, written in narrative form. The structure is a chronological narrative that follows the characters’ lives, from the morning the bomb fell to forty years later. Hersey jumps from one character to the next and then back again, in each chapter, to nurture the reader’s interest in each sub-plot.
This first chapter introduces the six main characters of the book. Hersey carefully details their precise locations and actions at the time the bomb flashed. This paints a vivid picture for the reader, and emphasizes Hersey’s point that it was the small, unconscious actions that spared each from death or more serious injury. In this chapter, Hersey impresses upon the reader how quickly everything changed when the atomic bomb hits. In one instant, the entire city switches from common, every-day tasks to a panicked struggle for survival. Although the entire work is factual, Hersey emphasizes certain points of his interviewee’s stories for story-telling effect.
For instance, it is ironic that Miss Sasaki spends time planning a funeral at work that morning. The funeral, scheduled for ten a.m., would not only never take place but would be utterly forgotten in the flood of deaths from the bomb that was about to be dropped.
Another irony Hersey notes is that while the dropping of the bomb over Hiroshima signifies a technological breakthrough into the "atomic age," Miss Suzuki is actually crushed and wounded by books, fairly primitive objects compared to this brand new weapon.
A third irony is that a number of the characters remember feeling relief at the all-clear signal that sounds at eight o’clock that morning. Just fifteen minutes later, a completely unfamiliar type of bomb is dropped on them. Hersey is showing the reader just how unexpected and undetectable the nuclear attack is for the citizens of Hiroshima.
In the second chapter, the reader sees the initial horrors of the atomic experience from the eyes of the survivors. The significance of the book’s writing style becomes clear in this context: Remarkable and shocking events are told in such a straightforward manner, without commentary, that they are almost more shocking.
For example, Father Kleinsorge assumes that the Hoshijima women were dead under their collapsed house, and begins pulling out one body by the hair. When the body protests in pain, he realizes she is alive. The reader is further told that both women are largely unhurt. This small event is quite impactful for the reader after hearing of so many in Hiroshima left under their houses to burn to death, with no one even trying to ascertain if they are still alive. We realize that Father Kleinsorge could have easily left the women in their buried state since he assumes them dead. The fact that they were not only alive but also in good condition shocks us into thinking about the hundreds who no doubt live through the initial blast but perish unnecessarily for lack of rescue. The uncertainty and fear from the bomb’s devastation is not simply a one-time occurrence. The survivors continue to be terrified throughout the day as they wonder what had happened.
When people become nauseated, they think the Americans have dropped gas to poison them. When they hear weather planes overhead that afternoon, they fear the Americans are returning to attack them again. In addition, most surviving citizens are badly wounded and nauseated, without adequate food, shelter, or water. This chapter also explores the phenomenon of people’s reaction to the massive suffering around them and their own survival needs.
Besides Rev. Tanimoto, Father Kleinsorge, and Dr. Sasaki, the other main characters quickly become self-absorbed. The chapter describes how this is the case for the whole city. Although everywhere people are trapped under burning buildings, no one heeds their desperate cries for help. Hersey attributes this self-focused behavior on the overwhelming human need juxtaposed to people’s limited powers and their state of shock.
In the third chapter, the reader witnesses the first installment of the Japanese government’s inadequate response to the atomic disaster. It fails to assist the survivors in both the first days after the bombing and the months and years of rebuilding their lives and ravaged bodies. It takes days for other cities to send in doctors, a naval ship promises help but never comes back, and the authorities withhold information about what has happened. Hiroshima’s people are largely left to fend for themselves, at least for the first few days.
The government also refuses to allow accurate information about the bomb to reach the people of the city. As a result, rumors are rampant as to what kind of weapon was used. The people of Hiroshima, along with all of Japan, hear in this chapter the Emperor’s voice for the first time, over the radio. This alone would be earth-shattering for a Japanese, taught all their life that the Emperor is God-like and unapproachable at a human level.