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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Snow Falling on Cedars!