Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Guterson uses words such as mystery, fate, accident, happenstance, and coincidence to describe the inhuman, uncontrollable, and unknowable forces that govern the universe. Indeed, many events in the world of Snow Falling on Cedars simply happen, causelessly and unpredictably. Carl Heine dies because a freighter happens to pass by his boat at the exact time that he is atop his mast, at his most vulnerable. Ishmael happens to survive the storming of Betio while almost everyone else in his platoon dies. The lighthouse radioman, who would have been able to prove that Kabuo was innocent of murdering Carl, happens to be transferred out of San Piedro the morning after Carl’s death.
These events, like the motions of the storm and the sea, happen for no reason and without human control. The characters in the novel continuously struggle to exert their own will against such impersonal and random forces. This struggle sometimes entails learning to accept what they cannot change: Ishmael, for instance, must accept that his arm has been lost in the war and that Hatsue does not love him. Sometimes, however, circumstances that appear inevitable and unchangeable—prejudice or war, for example—are the result of human action. Guterson suggests that people can and should act to resist these things. Nels decries prejudice in the courtroom, and Arthur does the same in his newspaper. Kabuo assists Carl in an emergency despite having every reason to disregard him. The challenge facing people, Guterson suggests, is learning to recognize the difference between what is human and therefore changeable and what is inhuman and therefore unchangeable. Drawing on love, compassion, courage, reason, and forgiveness, individuals and societies can and must decide as much of their own fate as they can.
Snow Falling on Cedars reads like a map of prejudice, clearly showing the fault lines between groups and individuals. Prejudice is pervasive on San Piedro; whites resent and fear the Japanese immigrants, but reap economic profit from the Japanese-American residents’ discipline and hard work. Envy, mistrust, and greed run rampant as the island’s whites round up, imprison, and exile their Japanese neighbors when the government gives its internment order. Yet the Japanese-Americans are not simply victims; in some ways, they choose to maintain their separateness, partly out of a sense of superiority. Fujiko, for instance, has contempt for whites and for American culture in general. Likewise, Kabuo distrusts his white neighbors so much that he refuses to cooperate with Art Moran’s investigation of Carl’s death.
Guterson implies that prejudice runs in such cycles, with each biased action and attitude reinforcing and generating new prejudice. Characters who are surrounded by such resentments and biases start to internalize them, allowing them to seep into other parts of their life. Ishmael, for instance, learns to hate the Japanese during World War II because he hates Hatsue for having rejected him. Carl likewise hates the Japanese because the war takes him from his beloved farm.
Additionally, we see that such prejudices in the novel are not limited to differences in ethnicity. The San Piedro fishermen mistrust Ishmael because he is an intellectual and makes a living by using words rather than his hands. Such prejudices remain buried beneath the surface of the seemingly placid community on the island, but they have the potential to erupt with violent consequences. The struggle to identify these prejudices in public and in private is a central challenge for the characters of Snow Falling on Cedars.
Ishmael’s argument with his mother, Helen, illustrates the limits of knowledge in the novel. While Ishmael lies and argues that the facts show Kabuo is guilty, Helen wonders if such facts are ever enough to justify condemning a man. Ishmael resists his mother’s argument despite his knowledge that the case against Kabuo is dangerously incomplete and circumstantial.