Everything was conjoined by mystery and fate, and in his darkened cell he meditated on this. . . . He would have to . . . accept that the mountain of his violent sins was too large to climb in this lifetime.
In this passage, which concludes Chapter 11, Kabuo confronts his guilt while sitting in his prison cell. He feels intense remorse for killing Germans as a soldier in World War II—a feeling notably absent in, or at least unexpressed by, the novel’s white veterans. More than anyone else in the novel, Kabuo accepts that “mystery and fate” dictate the outcome of life. However, he also believes that individuals, “straining and pushing at the shell of identity and distinctness,” are responsible for their actions. Kabuo feels that he has sinned by killing Germans, even if he had little or no choice in the matter. Now a prisoner, Kabuo believes he must atone for these sins by accepting punishment, even if this punishment is for a murder he did not commit. The actual reason for the punishment is irrelevant, because Kabuo feels his punishment is deserved. The only freedom he believes he will ever truly experience, therefore, is the freedom to accept his guilt.
When they looked out into the whiteness of the world the wind flung it sharply at their narrowed eyes and foreshortened their view of everything.
This passage, near the beginning of Chapter 12, illustrates Guterson’s use of the snowstorm as a motif in the novel. Relentless and impersonal, the storm repeatedly batters the island, leaving the islanders at its mercy. Guterson implies that the storm is like the universe: cold and impersonal, the product of random chance that humans are powerless to control. Relentlessly pummeling the courthouse, the storm symbolically lashes at humanity’s frail attempts to sort out right from wrong and guilt from innocence within the courtroom. Those who go outside and face the storm directly lose their sense of direction and vision and are thrust into a nearly primitive struggle to survive. Everything else—such as abstract concepts like justice and love—is obliterated. In “foreshorten[ing] their view of everything,” the storm forces people to look into the “whiteness of the world.” This last phrase is likely a reference to Herman Melville’s famous chapter in Moby Dick—titled “The Whiteness of the Whale”—in which the narrator equates the “all-consuming” whiteness of the whale with chaos, disorder, and the powerlessness of the individual to influence his or her fate.
“I’m talking about people . . . who can do things because they run newspapers or arrest people or convict them or decide about their lives. People don’t have to be unfair, do they?”
Hatsue confronts Ishmael with these words near the end of Chapter 22. She urges him to write something in the San Piedro Review to defend Kabuo and expose the racist nature of the trial. Ishmael’s reply—that Hatsue, or anyone else for that matter, should not expect fairness—stems from his resentment of Hatsue and is a veiled reference to her rejection of him. Hatsue seeks to empower Ishmael with her response here. She may still feel some guilt over rejecting Ishmael, but she insists that people do have the power to intervene against chance. Specifically, Hatsue means that Ishmael has the power to affect the future if he chooses to be brave, kind, and mature enough. Ishmael knows that Hatsue is right but has no response to her pleas. At this moment, we realize that the novel’s main conflict is Ishmael’s struggle to overcome his cynicism and disillusionment and help the woman who caused his resentment. He must accept that life is not always fair or just but that there are aspects of life that need not be left to chance.
“Everything else is ambiguous. Everything else is emotions and hunches. At least the facts you can cling to; the emotions just float away.”
Midway through Chapter 24, Ishmael and his mother, Helen Chambers, debate Kabuo’s guilt. Ishmael pretends to think that Kabuo is guilty, despite having just discovered crucial evidence at the lighthouse that effectively exonerates Kabuo. Moreover, after his conversation with Hatsue, Ishmael knows that although “[e]verything else is ambiguous,” he has a responsibility to do what he can to ensure that justice prevails. In his conversation with his mother, Ishmael stubbornly clings to certain convictions that he knows are untrue. He believes that only facts matter and that facts are always clear and objective. Ishmael’s mother, however, realizes that her son’s convictions are merely a shell behind which he hides. She implies that one emotion in particular—love—is stronger than fact and reason. Through Helen’s debate with her son, Guterson explores how humans can live together in a universe governed by chance. Helen offers a compelling answer: human beings cannot ever really know the facts or the truth, but they can choose to love one another. Later, after Ishmael decides to overcome his resentment and chooses to help Kabuo, he grasps his mother’s sentiment, understanding that chance has the power to rule everything in the world except the heart.
“There are things in this universe that we cannot control, and then there are the things we can. . . . Let fate, coincidence, and accident conspire; human beings must act on reason.”
During his closing arguments in Chapter 29, Nels Gudmundsson offers this interpretation of the task before the jury. Nels offers a different sort of argument from that of Helen Chambers. Whereas Helen questions whether facts can lead to truth and instead believes in love, Nels emphasizes the ability—and duty—of people to think and act rationally. He wants the jury to realize that it has the power to control events and that it should not leave them to chance. In offering these contrasting viewpoints from Helen and Nels, Guterson suggests that if love is one way to survive the storms of fate, reason is another. Though love is fragile and reason is imperfect, Nels and Helen argue that these human forces can be strong and can affect the outcomes of events. With this message from Nels to the jury, Guterson emphasizes the challenge of doing everything in our power to rise above chance and circumstance.