Snow Falling on Cedars
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Struggle Between Free Will and Chance
Guterson uses words such as mystery, fate, accident, happenstance, and coincidence to describe the inhuman, uncontrollable, and unknowable forces that govern the universe. Indeed, many events in the world of Snow Falling on Cedars simply happen, causelessly and unpredictably. Carl Heine dies because a freighter happens to pass by his boat at the exact time that he is atop his mast, at his most vulnerable. Ishmael happens to survive the storming of Betio while almost everyone else in his platoon dies. The lighthouse radioman, who would have been able to prove that Kabuo was innocent of murdering Carl, happens to be transferred out of San Piedro the morning after Carl’s death.
These events, like the motions of the storm and the sea, happen for no reason and without human control. The characters in the novel continuously struggle to exert their own will against such impersonal and random forces. This struggle sometimes entails learning to accept what they cannot change: Ishmael, for instance, must accept that his arm has been lost in the war and that Hatsue does not love him. Sometimes, however, circumstances that appear inevitable and unchangeable—prejudice or war, for example—are the result of human action. Guterson suggests that people can and should act to resist these things. Nels decries prejudice in the courtroom, and Arthur does the same in his newspaper. Kabuo assists Carl in an emergency despite having every reason to disregard him. The challenge facing people, Guterson suggests, is learning to recognize the difference between what is human and therefore changeable and what is inhuman and therefore unchangeable. Drawing on love, compassion, courage, reason, and forgiveness, individuals and societies can and must decide as much of their own fate as they can.
The Cyclical Nature of Prejudice
Snow Falling on Cedars reads like a map of prejudice, clearly showing the fault lines between groups and individuals. Prejudice is pervasive on San Piedro; whites resent and fear the Japanese immigrants, but reap economic profit from the Japanese-American residents’ discipline and hard work. Envy, mistrust, and greed run rampant as the island’s whites round up, imprison, and exile their Japanese neighbors when the government gives its internment order. Yet the Japanese-Americans are not simply victims; in some ways, they choose to maintain their separateness, partly out of a sense of superiority. Fujiko, for instance, has contempt for whites and for American culture in general. Likewise, Kabuo distrusts his white neighbors so much that he refuses to cooperate with Art Moran’s investigation of Carl’s death.
Guterson implies that prejudice runs in such cycles, with each biased action and attitude reinforcing and generating new prejudice. Characters who are surrounded by such resentments and biases start to internalize them, allowing them to seep into other parts of their life. Ishmael, for instance, learns to hate the Japanese during World War II because he hates Hatsue for having rejected him. Carl likewise hates the Japanese because the war takes him from his beloved farm.
Additionally, we see that such prejudices in the novel are not limited to differences in ethnicity. The San Piedro fishermen mistrust Ishmael because he is an intellectual and makes a living by using words rather than his hands. Such prejudices remain buried beneath the surface of the seemingly placid community on the island, but they have the potential to erupt with violent consequences. The struggle to identify these prejudices in public and in private is a central challenge for the characters of Snow Falling on Cedars.
The Limits of Knowledge
Ishmael’s argument with his mother, Helen, illustrates the limits of knowledge in the novel. While Ishmael lies and argues that the facts show Kabuo is guilty, Helen wonders if such facts are ever enough to justify condemning a man. Ishmael resists his mother’s argument despite his knowledge that the case against Kabuo is dangerously incomplete and circumstantial.
Guterson suggests that facts and knowledge are not the same thing. When the young Ishmael tells his father that a newspaper should report only facts, Arthur responds by asking his son, “Which facts?” Ishmael ultimately asks the same question when he urges Art Moran to search Carl’s boat a second time. As the novel progresses and we learn more about Carl’s death, we realize that the facts of the case are never complete. The facts remain important, however, because they are often the only resource we have in making any judgment. As individuals and as a community, the characters in Snow Falling on Cedars must use reason when making decisions that could hurt others: weighing Kabuo’s guilt or innocence, for example, or sitting idly by as the island’s Japanese residents are rounded up and put in prison. In every decision, human beings must rely on facts that are inevitably incomplete. We must accept that our knowledge is limited and must rely on our hearts and our reason to make the right decisions.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The snowstorm beats against the courtroom windows, fells power lines, and sends cars careening into ditches. The storm’s fury affects the islanders, interrupting their lives and routines: the jurors are stranded in the courthouse, and fishing comes to a standstill as boats capsize in the harbor. Other incidents of adverse weather likewise affect the course of events. The young Ishmael and Hatsue end up in the cedar tree for the first time because a rainstorm drives them there. The disorienting fog on the water is indirectly responsible for Carl’s death because it causes him to lose his way and end up in the risky waters of the shipping channel. Rough seas complicate Ishmael’s platoon-landing at Betio during the war, increasing the carnage and losses the platoon suffers. In every case, nature pushes human beings, controls them, and puts them at its mercy. Humans become complacent and seek to survive and cope as best as possible. The storm outside the courtroom is a symbol for the chance, uncontrollable incidents that affect human lives.
Many characters in the novel have bodies that reflect essential qualities of their characters or personalities. For instance, Carl’s penis, which Horace notices is twice the size of his own, emphasizes Carl’s former vitality and strength. These qualities won Carl the admiration of San Piedro’s islanders, while his sexual drive defined his relationship with his wife. Susan Marie, likewise, has beautiful blond hair, marking her as the physical ideal of the white community on San Piedro. Kabuo’s face, which is cold and impassive, conveys treachery and remorselessness to the jurors, while to Kabuo it expresses guilt for World War II bloodshed. Ishmael’s amputated arm is a visual token of his incompleteness as a person and his inability to mature into a responsible, active adult. We see that characters in the novel frequently use these physical traits as the basis for judgments about other characters or about themselves—judgments that are often incorrect.
Courtroom novels frequently use testimony as the narrative device to tell a story. In Snow Falling on Cedars, testimony is the engine that drives the plot. The testimonies of characters who sit on the witness stand inform us of the circumstances of Carl’s death and illuminate the stories, biases, and attitudes of various individuals on the island and the community as a whole. Guterson rarely tells us anything in a straightforward narrative voice. Instead, he weaves together a collection of testimonies to create a rich and conflicting portrait of relations on San Piedro.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Cedar Tree
For Ishmael and Hatsue, the cedar tree is a sanctuary from society and the forces of prejudice that attempt to keep them apart. The tree is the only place where they are free to express their love for each another. Hidden in the woods, the cedar tree exists outside of society; dead and hollowed out, it exists outside of time. The tree exists in a different world that is unaffected by chance, circumstance, and the prejudices of others. The tree shelters Ishmael and Hatsue from storms both literal, such as the falling rain and snow, and figurative, such as war and prejudice. The tree’s isolation, however, prevents the couple from living fully in the world and from accepting and acknowledging that life is not always fair. For Hatsue, in particular, the tree becomes a prison of deceit, leading her to believe in a relationship that is untenable in the face of the pressures of the outside world. The tree imprisons Ishmael in a similar fashion, locking him into an unrealistic vision of the world that eventually hurts him.
Arthur Chambers’s Chair
Arthur Chambers’s chair, like his study, is empty. The chair represents Arthur’s legacy of moral authority and dedication to truth and fairness. Ishmael treats the chair with respect but also with a hint of awkwardness and fear. He does not feel that he fits into the chair, a reflection of his fear that he has not lived up to his father’s stature or reputation. When Ishmael finally makes the courageous and mature decision to help Hatsue, the woman who has hurt him, he is able to fill Arthur’s chair and draw strength from it.
The courthouse embodies humanity’s frail but noble attempts to separate right from wrong and guilt from innocence—in effect, to impose order and clarity on an uncaring and chaotic universe. The courthouse is battered by storms and plagued with technical difficulties, such as a faulty radiator and intermittent electric power. The building literally shelters its inhabitants from the storm, but it also symbolically shelters the characters from immoral and irrational acts like discrimination. The courthouse is a highly fragile shelter, however, and is not entirely immune to the storms of chance or human cruelty.
Like his father before him, Ishmael carries a camera with him virtually everywhere he goes on San Piedro, recording images from the daily lives of the island’s residents. Photographs, like facts, purport to convey an objective and unbiased view of the world. Yet Guterson implies that photographs, like facts, can be easily manipulated to convey a subjective story or perspective. In carrying the camera, Ishmael wields not only the power to tell stories but also the ability to frame people’s lives with his own biases.
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