Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
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, 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.