A comparison if the influence of the past and the present in Snow Falling on Cedars and Chocolat.
Joanne Harris’ novel Chocolat and Scott Hicks’ film Snow Falling on Cedars use characters and their interactions to explore the influence of the past on the present. Both texts reveal the influence of past relationships on their major female and male characters’ present lives. Where Harris’ focus is family relationships, Hicks also explores the impact of a past romantic relationship. Using a dual first-person narrative, Harris relies on the reminiscences of her central characters to convey the connection between past and present, whereas Hicks employs a non-linear structure of flashbacks interspersed with the present to make this link. Both texts use the impact of racism on its victims to reveal that not only individuals live in the shadow of the past, but also the entire community. Both Chocolat and Snow Falling on Cedars depict how a childhood father figure shapes the lifestyle of their main male character. Harris’ dual first-person narrative voice allows the reader access to antagonist Reynaud’s thoughts and memories as he speaks to Mon Pere, who was once his childhood mentor; whereas Hicks juxtaposes flashbacks from several characters’ perspectives with the present to reveal how the past shaped protagonist Ishmael’s (Ethan Hawke) life. One such flashback reveals that as a child Ishmael learned to use the newspaper press, his father commenting that he would “make a newspaper man out of (him) yet”. This is coupled with the present, where he is reporting on the trial of the Japanese-American Kazuo for murder, fulfilling his father’s wish. Like Ishmael, Reynaud’s father figure determined his career. Reynaud comments that as a child he “compromised (his) soul” for the priest, who persuaded him to set the gypsy boats alight, and as a result he caused the death of two “sleepers” who “failed to waken”. However, he was “absolved” by Mon Pere and set firmly on the course of becoming a priest later in life. He now attempts to live up to Mon Pere’s example in his “crusade” against the recently arrived gypsies. Unlike Mon Pere’s influence on Reynaud, Ishmael’s father instilled in him strong opposition to racism. A montage sequence shows Ishmael’s attempt to write an article about the “unfair” trial, interspersed with close-ups of his father’s glasses, the evidence that can save Kazuo, and a photo of Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), his first love. This interaction between past and present reveals the decision Ishmael faces between presenting evidence to save Hatsue’s husband, Kazuo (Rick Yune) from conviction, as his father would have done, or to indulge his personal desire to withhold it out of anger with Hatsue, who broke his heart. Near the end of the film, Ishmael decides to put the evidence forward. While in Chocolat Reynaud’s present is negatively affected by the influence of Mon Pere’s past racism, in Snow Falling on Cedars, Ishmael’s father shaped his morals, which positively affects his present. As well as their careers and personal beliefs, Reynaud and Ishmael’s insecurities and fears stem from their father figures. Through his monologue, Reynaud reveals that as a child, he caught his mother engaging in a sin “of the flesh” with the priest. His shock that Mon Pere was even “capable of sin” made him realise that “nothing was safe” and created his desperate fear of temptation. His attempts to realise his idealistic view of priesthood and resist temptation where Mon Pere could not, control Reynaud’s lifestyle. Harris uses vivid imagery in Reynuad’s dream of dying “beneath (chocolate’s) tender gluttony,” a “cumulation of every temptation ever known,” to reveal his fear of slipping further towards temptation, despite his increasing self-denial during Lent. In contrast, Hicks reveals through dialogue that unlike Reynaud’s attempts to transcend his forerunner, Ishmael’s life is shaped by his insecurity that he is “only half the man his father was.” However, Ishmael ultimately lives up to his father’s example and overcomes his sense of injury, the war and his anger at Hatsue, to save Kazuo and move on with his life. Nels’ (Max Von Sydow) comment, that Ishmael is “sounding just a little like (his) father”, confirms this success. Harris, in contrast, reveals that Reynaud’s desperate attempts to “weed” out the metaphorical “dandelions”, which represent the temptation of “La Céleste Praline Chocolaterie Artisanale” and the indulgent gypsy lifestyle, lead to his destruction. He becomes delirious, imagining Denise Arnauld “eating in the confessional”, and is flooded with “irrational thoughts” of “devil worship” when he sees the flames of Vianne’s “flambéed pancakes” at the gypsy campsite. Ultimately, his fear that the temptation of chocolate and indulgence will “undermine the church” drives him to attempt to destroy Vianne’s chocolate festival, leading to his own downfall. Harris uses reminiscences within Vianne’s narration, and Hicks uses flashbacks juxtaposed with the present, to explore the impact a past relationship has on the present of their protagonists. A close-up of protagonist Ishmael watching Hatsue through a symbolic barrier of balcony bars during the opening of the trial, coupled with their first conversation where Hatsue commands him to “go away”, introduces their estranged relationship. Flashbacks reveal the illicit nature of Hatsue and Ishmael’s past romance, as Ishmael comments that Hatsue’s “friends would” find their relationship inappropriate. Their fear of being caught is reflected in the dimly lit, secretive setting of the cedar tree. Hicks combines a voice-over of Hatsue reading a letter, in which she reveals her understanding that she and Ishmael “could never be right together”, with swelling non-digetic music and a final close-up of Ishmael’s amputated arm. This reveals that the strain of societal disapproval caused Ishmael and Hatsue’s relationship to fall apart, with Ishmael’s physical injury symbolising the long-term damage created for him by the failure of the relationship. Hicks reveals that Ishmael still resents Hatsue’s choice to end their relationship when Ishmael’s voice breaks as he suggests that he should “write an article about unfairness and all the unfair things that people do to each other”. Whilst Hicks combines soundtrack and images, Harris uses the metaphorical image of the “Black Man”, a figure that embodies Vianne’s mother’s greatest fear: losing her child to the church authorities, to reveal that Vianne’s relationship with her mother was strained by the constant presence of this fear. This negatively affects the adult Vianne. She too fears the loss of her daughter Anouk, despite her understanding that “children are born wild” and must go their own way. She also continues to feel the presence of “the black man” even after her mother’s death; in Lansquenet her “black man” is the antagonist Reynaud. The present of both protagonists is negatively affected by their past until Vianne can overcome her fear of the “Black Man”, and Ishmael can overcome his resentment and save Kazuo, Hatsue’s husband, from conviction. Ishmael’s escape from the influence of the past is symbolised by his and Hatsue’s final embrace, as earlier in the film he begged to “hold” her “for a few seconds” so he could “walk away and never speak to her again”. Harris also symbolically reveals Vianne’s ability to overcome the negative influence of her mother, when Vianne chooses to burn the tarot card of “the black man” which dictated her mother’s life. Following this is the revelation that Reynaud is “a fool to himself, a carnival mask”, which allows her to let go of her fear of “the black man”, the strongest negative legacy from her mother. Thus, both Harris and Hicks use their protagonists to present the human ability to overcome the emotional baggage of past relationships. The life choices of both Vianne and Hatsue, are influenced by their childhood relationships with their mothers. Harris uses “the wind song” motif – “V’lá l’bon vent, v’lá l’joli vent”, and the pull “the moving hot wind” has for Vianne, to reveal that Vianne’s childhood “chase around Europe” left her with an inability to settle down. Her childhood also created Vianne’s interest in cooking; she refers to recipes as “signposts along (her) erratic path”. This determined her choice to run a chocolate shop, the foundation of her present lifestyle. As Vianne’s childhood directly shaped her present lifestyle, so Hatsue’s childhood governed her marriage and relationship decisions. Instead of Harris’ abstract imagery, Hicks cuts from the realistic romantic close-up of Hatsue and Ishmael together in the cedar tree, to a dialogue Hatsue has with her mother, to reveal that Hatsue’s mother taught her “to be Japanese”, to “stay away from white boys” and “marry one of (her) own kind.” This conveys the environment in which Hatsue grew up, where racial segregation between Japanese and Anglo-Americans was accepted. Hicks portrays this segregation using a mid-shot of the school bus, where Japanese and Anglo children sit on opposite sides of the aisle. Hatsue’s understanding that her relationship with Ishmael was “wrong” for the society in which they live, and her choice to instead marry the Japanese-American Kazuo, reflects her mother’s influence and Hatsue’s recognition of this segregation. Through the influence of past racism on the victims’ present, both texts suggest that it is not only individuals who are affected by the past, but the wider community. Harris uses the minor character, Roux, to explore racial prejudices and society’s reaction to the gypsies, while Hicks uses the community’s response to minor character Kazuo’s trial to convey racial tension. Within his narrative, Reynaud recalls that as a boy he committed arson and drove the gypsies out of the village, revealing past prejudice in Lansquenet. In contrast, Hicks uses flashbacks of Hatsue’s family to reveal that thousands of Japanese were sent to prison camps as internal enemies during the Second World War. This is the basis of Kazuo’s fear that he “would be made the victim of prejudice”, which leads to his attempt to conceal evidence of his presence on Karl’s boat by removing his spare battery, ironically making himself look more guilty. Unlike the images used by Hicks, Harris relies on dialogue to reveal Roux’s fear of being victimised when he thinks he has accidentally “killed” Armande. In his panic Roux angrily tells Vianne that people “will say (he) attacked” Armande and he is afraid to go “back there”. Minor character Jolie’s wonder at “what he was doing here” to reveal that there is foundation for his fear. In Snow Falling on Cedars, racism also remains. It surfaces during the crisis of the court case, where Karl’s wife comments that “you can’t read Japs”, and Kazuo’s lawyer, Nels, comments that the “prosecutor” used racism against Kazuo when he suggested that the jury “look at his face… assuming (they) would see an enemy there”. Both texts reveal that the victims of past racism are affected in the present through their fear that they will again be victimised, a conviction furthered by the continued presence of racism in their society. While both authors reveal that old insecurities, resentments and fears, often drive the actions of individuals and the wider community, they imply that this negative influence on the present must be overcome. Harris reveals that Vianne cannot grow as a person until she overcomes her fear of “the black man” which stems from her childhood. Hicks reveals that Ishmael must overcome his resentment of Hatsue, so that he can save Kazuo from conviction. This allows him to overcome his sense of moral inferiority to his father and grow as an individual. In Chocolat, Reynaud serves to show the danger of never overcoming the past, which leads to his destruction, as he escapes his town Lansquenet in disguise, losing his job and purpose. Hicks uses flashbacks to reveal that within the community there is a continuation of racism from the Second World War, while Harris relies on reminiscence within Raynaud’s narration to reveal that this racism stems from the stereotypical view of gypsies as “vermin”. In both texts, minor characters are used to highlight the danger of the communities’ inability to overcome racist ideas, which, in conjunction with the struggle of individual characters with the past, compounds the authors’ message that individual and communal growth can only be achieved by overcoming the past’s destructive influence.
Tolerance and Intolerance in Chocolat
Chocolat is not just a quirky romance set in a quaint French village centered on a magical chocolate shop. It is so much more than that. It is a story of the juxtaposition of humanity and the ying and yang of life. It leaves the reader with more than a craving for chocolate. It leaves them reflecting on their own morals, values and prejudices and maybe a little better equipped to consider those of others. Joanne Harris uses two opposed narrators and several literary techniques to present a study in moral relativism. Moral relativism is the premise that any view based on a moral judgement is neither intrinsically right nor wrong; that moral judgement only comes from the lens through which it is viewed and those views are shaped by a myriad of factors such as life experiences, culture, beliefs and family values. Tolerance and intolerance are not moral absolutes, but rather are relative to those beliefs and social norms.
Joanne Harris uses the characters point of view to create a picture. Vianne views herself as tolerant. She is free spirited and strong willed, willing to stand up to perceived prejudices. She has strong empathy, particularly with the misunderstood members of the village. With the thought that “It isn’t up to [her] –or anybody–to decide how these people should live their lives.” Vianne views placing rules or restrictions on people as intolerant. In contrast, she conveys the point of view that Reynaud’s position is one of intolerance. He is inflexible and rigid in his faith. Her perception of his religious beliefs allows the author to present a foreshadowing of how religion may negatively manifest in society and how hypocrisy born of blind faith in religion can cloud judgement. Whilst Reynaud views himself as faithful and an upholder of moral values, he is at the same time portrayed as heartless and intolerant when seen through Vianne’s eyes. The author has used this paradox to further challenge the concept of moral absolutes.
From Reynaud’s perspective tolerance is compliance with agreed norms of the society in which he lives. He sees behavior that is in opposition to those norms, such as Vianne’s, as antisocial and therefore it does not require acceptance. The purpose of acceptance is to provide a sense of belonging and therefore when Vianne shows disregard for these rules of acceptance he feels justified in promoting her exclusion by the townspeople.
Joanne Harris employs a number of literary techniques to increase engagement with the reader. By using parallelism of the two narrators, Vianne and Reynaud, each committed to an opposing point of view, Harris encourages the reader to develop a deeper understanding of the core issues. Harris “see’s Vianne and Reynaud as two sides of a single coin; closer in terms of their background, their fears and their struggle for dominance than anyone else in the story.” By presenting both sides equally Harris is able to encourage the reader to reflect on the concept of tolerance and intolerance. When questioned on the story Harris refers to it as “a plea for tolerance of others but also of ourselves, a reminder that to be fallible is both natural and allowed; that self-indulgence isn’t always bad;”(Harris, 2000)
The use of a protagonist, an advocate or champion of a cause or idea, and an antagonist, a person who actively opposes someone or something, is a common literary technique in themes of major conflict. However, in Chocolat these roles are not clearly defined. Whilst a contemporary definition may see Vianne as the protagonist and Reynaud the antagonist, arguments could equally be made for the opposite based on the reader’s subjectivity and perspective. When questioned on which characters she perceives as fulfilling these roles, Joanne Harris stated “that’s a very good question, I will leave it to you as the reader to decide”
By presenting the story from the two opposing perspectives of the main characters Vianne and Reynaud, Joanne Harris challenges the reader to come to their own conclusion of who is right or wrong. The deliberate absence of a third, neutrally narrated perspective reduces the potential for the reader to simply adopt the role of a bystander and instead draws them into the conflict and encourages them to reflect on the polarizing issues of the narrators. In doing so the reader will unconsciously form a subjective position, based on their own views and beliefs as to which character they most align with. This in turn encourages the reader to reflect on their own bias and explore where they find themselves on the tolerance/ intolerance continuum.