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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
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
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.
Guterson suggests that facts and knowledge are not the
same thing. When the young Ishmael tells his father that a newspaper should
report only facts, Arthur responds by asking his son, “Which facts?”
Ishmael ultimately asks the same question when he urges Art Moran
to search Carl’s boat a second time. As the novel progresses and
we learn more about Carl’s death, we realize that the facts of the case
are never complete. The facts remain important, however, because
they are often the only resource we have in making any judgment.
As individuals and as a community, the characters in Snow
Falling on Cedars must use reason when making decisions that
could hurt others: weighing Kabuo’s guilt or innocence, for example,
or sitting idly by as the island’s Japanese residents are rounded
up and put in prison. In every decision, human beings must rely
on facts that are inevitably incomplete. We must accept that our knowledge
is limited and must rely on our hearts and our reason to make the
Ace your assignments with our guide to Snow Falling on Cedars!