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