Ishmael Chambers, the protagonist of Snow Falling on Cedars, is haunted by the trauma of his past. His rejection by Hatsue Imada and his brief but horrific experience in World War II have left him bitter and resentful. With a broken heart and a missing arm, Ishmael sulks around San Piedro, observing other people’s lives but having little personal life of his own. Ishmael reports what he sees in the San Piedro Review, the local newspaper that his father, Arthur, founded.
As a virtual outcast chronicling the lives and events that go on around him, Ishmael plays a role similar to that of the most famous Ishmael of American literature, the narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Like Melville’s narrator, Ishmael Chambers watches as his fellow humans are battered by seemingly impersonal forces: war, prejudice, and the fierce winter storm that blankets San Piedro’s cedars in fresh snow. Unlike Melville’s Ishmael, however, Ishmael Chambers must learn to accept circumstances that he cannot change, such as Hatsue’s rejection of him and the loss of his arm in the war. He must also find the courage and maturity to make choices that influence others’ lives. Specifically, Ishmael struggles with the decision about whether to change the course of the trial by sharing evidence from the lighthouse that will exonerate Kabuo.
Ishmael is disillusioned and disappointed because he thinks there is unfairness and injustice in the world. He insists that facts, and facts alone, should decide the fate of individuals. This stubborn idealism is poorly suited to the complexities of human life on San Piedro, a place where the very geography—the confinement of living on a small island—affects the lives and fates of its residents just as much as objective truths. In response to his disillusionment, Ishmael retreats into a cold and antisocial shell. Feeling himself incapable of loving again, he dwells on the legacies of the past, unable to overcome memories of the war and wanting to exact revenge on Hatsue for her rejection. Ishmael’s challenge throughout the novel is to emerge from his shell, move forward from his painful past, and become a strong leader as his father was before him.
More than any other character in the novel, Hatsue is torn between the demands of two seemingly irreconcilable sets of values. The young Ishmael represents one set of values, the belief that individuals have the right to be happy and that they can live in a manner unrestrained by the demands imposed by society. The other set of values, represented most fully by Hatsue’s mother, Fujiko, and Mrs. Shigemura, holds that life is inherently full of suffering and misfortune. Individuals must accept the limitations of their time, place, and culture and try their utmost to fulfill their duty to family and community.
Though these two value systems roughly correspond to the cultural division between the whites and the Japanese, Hatsue is proof that such a simplistic division is impossible and that it is inappropriate to assume that all whites feel one way and all Japanese the other. Hatsue feels bound by duty to her parents, but at the same time resents her mother’s antiwhite prejudices. As a teenager, she loves Ishmael but feels that their love is somehow wrong. Later, Hatsue learns to accept that she can never love Ishmael and follows her mother’s wishes by marrying a Japanese man. Yet when Kabuo informs her of his plans to enlist in the army and fulfill his duty to America, Hatsue tries to make him stay. Her argument is similar to the one Ishmael makes in the cedar tree: two people in love should be together no matter what the rest of society demands from them.
Even after the war, when Kabuo is on trial, Hatsue cannot accept the idea that her husband’s fate rests in the hands of an impersonal system of courts and laws. She expects Ishmael to intervene on Kabuo’s behalf simply because Ishmael, as the editor of the newspaper, has power and influence that might be used to assist Kabuo’s case. Throughout the novel, Hatsue struggles to reconcile the conflicting values of individualistic idealism and stoic passivity. That she never fully achieves this reconciliation suggests that such a struggle never ends.
Like Carl Heine, Kabuo is a victim of fate. He does not feel that his fate is entirely arbitrary, however. A conscientious and pensive man, Kabuo feels guilty about killing Germans in World War II, even though he was merely doing his duty as a soldier. He had, after all, chosen to serve his country out of a desire to prove his loyalty. Still, Kabuo condemns himself for these wartime killings, believing that the guilt will remain with him even after his death.
Kabuo’s feeling of guilt is so pronounced that it haunts him in the same way that Hatsue’s rejection and the war haunt Ishmael. Though he is innocent of killing Carl Heine, Kabuo does not feel self-pity about his wrongful imprisonment. Rather, he accepts his trial and potential death sentence as a form of cosmic justice for his earlier murders in the war. However, he has no faith in this system of justice and lies to his attorney because he does not think anyone will believe him. Though Kabuo certainly wants to live, since he loves and appreciates his family, he is not even sure he deserves to be free. In effect, Kabuo puts himself at the mercy of chance because he does not believe in his own right to decide his future.
Though he is dead throughout most of Snow Falling on Cedars, Carl is a major character in the novel. He embodies both the best and worst aspects of the white community on San Piedro. A physically strong, hardworking, and stoic man, Carl is San Piedro’s ideal citizen. He toils for his family’s welfare, keeps to himself, and has largely put the trauma of his war experiences behind him. In these respects, Carl is superior to Ishmael, Horace Whaley, Kabuo, and the many other San Piedro residents who are only marginal members of the community.
Though Carl clearly represents many ideals, he also exemplifies the frustrating passivity and closed-mindedness typical of San Piedro’s white residents. As we see in his conversations with Kabuo and Susan Marie, Carl has an unthinking and reflexive dislike of people of Japanese origin, even though he and Kabuo used to be close friends as youngsters. Furthermore, Carl is so stoic and emotionally isolated that even his wife feels she does not know him well. Even the other fishermen, ostensibly Carl’s closest brethren, feel distant from him.
Carl’s importance to the narrative extends beyond his contradictions. When Carl agrees to sell the seven acres of land to Kabuo, he becomes the first of the novel’s major characters to find the strength to put the past behind him. It is ironic, therefore, that almost immediately after Carl affirms the power of individual morality, he is killed by the most impersonal of forces: chance.