Snow Falling on Cedars

by: David Guterson

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

The Storm

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.

The Body

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.

Testimony

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.