Summary and Analysis
Chapter 4 - Panic Grass and Feverfew
Chapter 4 begins on August 18 and relates events up to a year after the bombing. Once physicists determine that the radiation level is safe for people to return to Hiroshima, the six survivors come back but each is suffering from radiation sickness. Father Kleinsorge connects with two of the other survivors as a result of the effects of the bombing. He suffers from feeling faint and tired and his wounds won't heal. He is sent to the Catholic International Hospital in Tokyo where he becomes somewhat of a celebrity. Leaving the hospital on December 19 for Hiroshima, Father Kleinsorge meets Dr. Fujii on the train. When Father Kleinsorge explains that he must rest each day, Dr. Fujii predicts that rest will be difficult with so much rebuilding going on. Kleinsorge visits Miss Sasaki in the hospital at the request of her doctor; she is depressed over her crippled leg and she is not getting better. His faith and religious discussions slowly result in her eventual healing and converting to Catholicism. A year after the bombing, Kleinsorge is ill enough to be back in the hospital. Dr. Sasaki gets married in March, but he never again regains the kind of energy he had before the bombing. He observes and theorizes about the radiation sickness and works on ways to treat it. Along with fellow doctors, Dr. Sasaki analyzes the three stages of radiation illness and how to treat each. Meanwhile, his fellow doctor, Dr. Fujii, is living in a home that eventually washes into the sea after being hit by a typhoon. He buys a vacant clinic in Kaitaichi, east of Hiroshima, where he practices medicine again and socializes with the occupation officers. His thriving practice from the old days is gone.
Mr. Tanimoto suffers from a general malaise, a fever, and weakness. He can ill afford to rebuild his church. Even if he had the financial resources, his health is too poor to do any physical work. He continues to preach in his home. Mrs. Nakamura has regained the hair she lost, but she is living desperately, trying to feed her family and keep a roof over their heads. She has no money to pay a doctor to treat her own illness, let alone the illnesses of her children. Father Kleinsorge advises her to find work as a seamstress or domestic; she settles on the former.
Father Kleinsorge and a fellow priest obtain living quarters first in a shack and then in a barracks sold to them by the city. They hire a contractor to build a new mission house. Against his doctor's orders, Father Kleinsorge does not rest but instead visits possible new church members. A year after the bombing he goes back to the hospital in Tokyo for a rest.
The new municipal government, under the direction of the Allied Military Government, plans projects to rebuild the city, including the restoration of electricity and water as well as the construction of small housing units. Meanwhile, the statisticians begin to calculate the damage to lives and buildings, and the scientists converge on Hiroshima to measure the force and heat of the bomb in various locations.
The chapter ends with a summary of each character's current conditions. Speculation about the bomb's aftermath in theoretical and philosophical terms is joined by opinions from the medical and religious professions regarding the ethical justifications for the bombing. However, the people of Hiroshima (those that Hersey writes about) do not think about the ethical implications at all but rather about resignation — what is done is done.
The children of Hiroshima still see the day of the bombing as a great adventure. Months later their descriptions are factual details of the destruction and the dead.
Hersey names the fourth chapter "Panic Grass and Feverfew" after the names of weeds growing in Hiroshima. Feverfew literally means, "to drive away the fever." Because this chapter describes the radiation sickness and the result of the bomb's intense heat damage, perhaps Hersey chose this title to show the desire of the city's survivors to drive away the intense heat and the fever associated with their radiation sickness.
The city of Hiroshima is described in bits and pieces: first by the personal thoughts of the survivors and then by the more objective statisticians. Father Kleinsorge is becoming accustomed to the four square miles of "reddish brown scar" that is Hiroshima. Hersey provides imagery here that evokes from the reader an understanding of the swiftness of death. He describes signs with inquiries from family members about surviving relatives that have been crudely erected on ash piles. The macabre succession of stationary cars and bicycles on the street is a vivid image reminding the reader that in the midst of life, people simply vanished. Miss Sasaki, being transferred from one place to another, is "horrified and amazed" by the city she knew so well. The government must deal on a practical level with the lack of electricity and clean water and begin making decisions about how to house and feed the survivors. A Planning Conference is called to figure out what to do with the debris that was Hiroshima and decisions must be made about what to place over this burnt piece of earth. All life as the people of Hiroshima have known it has changed forever.
Because Hersey uses his factual, journalistic style, the reader is simply shown the effects of the bombing on the six survivors. Hersey produces a profound reaction in the reader because he does not sensationalize or dramatize.
The largest portion of the chapter gives an account of the horrifying effects of radiation sickness. Father Kleinsorge and Miss Sasaki have wounds that won't heal; Mrs. Nakamura and her children have lost their hair and suffer from diarrhea; Reverend Tanimoto, Father Kleinsorge, and Dr. Sasaki suffer from weakness and a loss of energy. Miss Sasaki has a deep depression that is keeping her from healing. The lack of medical supplies, doctors, and nurses, and the medical inexperience with radiation sickness also contribute to the problem. But the survivors struggle on. They try to rebuild homes and churches, try to feed and clothe children, and attempt to come to some sort of closure with what has happened.
Hersey continues to depersonalize the aftermath of the bombing and radiation sickness. Nowhere is there an image or literary phrase that can be correlated to the six human stories. Dr. Sasaki and his fellow physicians theorize that radiation survivors have three stages to their illness. The doctors quantify in percentages how many bodies — in what location after so many days — died, suffered immediate symptoms, or had lasting radiation effects. Meanwhile, Father Kleinsorge is pale, shaky, seriously anemic, and has abdominal pains and a temperature of 104 degrees. If the reader listens to the experts, Kleinsorge appears to be simply a minor number in a medical project providing opportunities around which the medical profession can theorize.
Hersey seems to be layering page after page of quantitative terms and numerical equivalents to explain how the governmental institutions of the time treated the survivors and the city as a huge experiment in new technology. He describes the assault of the medical establishment and statisticians upon the city. Evidently, history must know what percentage of people were injured, survived, had after-effects, died, and so on within what radius. How many buildings were destroyed or useable? Even the force and heat of the bomb's detonation is checked to determine accurate and measurable statistics for the future. In opposition to the facts and figures, percentages and graphs, six survivors' lives symbolize the individual suffering caused but rarely really measured by the bombing.
Hersey allows the reader, near the end of Chapter 4, to speculate about the ethical question of whether the bomb should have been dropped. He presents three viewpoints, leaving the reader once again to draw his or her conclusions. Several spokespeople present the position that a community spirit and traditional attitude of dying with honor for the Emperor are positive results of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In contrast, many of Hiroshima's citizens hate Americans and feel they should be tried as war criminals and hanged. Hersey's third viewpoint is that of the Jesuit priests who are not Japanese. They seem to justify the bomb as a death weapon — like poison gas — and explain that the Japanese government was warned and so their people suffer.
Hersey leaves little doubt in the reader's mind that this entire chapter has consistently woven a theme of how impersonally war stamps its mark on the lives of those who survive as well as on the unnamed statistics of those who die. Against all of these ethical arguments, he presents what went on in the minds of the children of Hiroshima. They will forever be left with a traumatized reaction to this pivotal event in their lives. In the same breath as a mundane description of their day, they mention two mothers, one wounded and one dead, as well as familiar neighbors who are walking around covered with blood. Life goes on.
As always, throughout this chapter, Hersey leaves the reader with the question of whether war is ever justifiable, even in a so-called "just" cause. Ask the six survivors: Miss Sasaki, suffering deep depression and now crippled for life; Mrs. Nakamura, who is left extremely poor and must somehow nurture her children; Father Kleinsorge, who is hospitalized again a year after the bombing; Dr. Sasaki, who can no longer find the energy he once had to care for his patients; Dr. Fujii, who has no prospects for rebuilding his thriving practice; and the Reverend Tanimoto, who no longer has a church and is suffering from malaise.
John Hersey writes that these are "the lucky ones."
talismanic thought of as having magical power.
yen the basic monetary unit of Japan.
capricious changing abruptly and without apparent reason; erratic, flighty.
radiation sickness nausea, diarrhea, bleeding, loss of hair, and so on caused by overexposure to radiation.
Maupassant (Henri René Albert) Guy de 1850-93; French writer of novels and short stories.
bluets a small plant of the madder family, having small, pale-blue, four-lobed flowers.
Spanish bayonets yuccas having stiff, sword-shaped leaves.
goosefoot a weedy plant with small green flowers and fleshy foliage.
purslane a weed with pink, fleshy stems and small, yellow, short-lived flowers.
panic grass any of several grasses of the genus Panicum, such as millet, used as fodder.
feverfew a bush with finely divided foliage and flowers with white florets around a yellow disk.
sickle senna any of the caesalpinia family of plants, with finely divided leaves and yellow flowers.
regeneration Biol. the renewal or replacement of any hurt or lost part.
emanations heavy, gaseous isotopes that result from the decay of a radioactive element.
cyclotron a device for accelerating charged nuclear particles through a magnetic field in a widening spiral path; particle accelerator.
triangulating a method of determining the distance between two points on the earth's surface by plotting on a chart a series of connected triangles, measuring a base line between two points, and locating a third point by computing both the size of the angles made by lines from this point to the ends of the base line and the lengths of these lines.
white count the number of white blood cells, which are important in the body's defenses against infection.
moxibustion the burning of moxa (a soft, downy material) on the skin as a cauterizing agent or counterirritant, especially in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine.
unprecedented having no precedent or parallel; unheard-of; novel.
crux the essential or deciding point.