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.