Snow Falling on Cedars
Conflicting Perspectives in Snow Falling on Cedars: Representation and Importance
How is the representation of conflicting perspectives an integral part of the texts you have studied? In your response make a detailed comparison of how conflicting perspectives are represented in your prescribed text and the given unseen related text.
The representation of conflicting perspectives heightens awareness about the menaces created by the critical nature of society about specific personal and political matters. The representation of conflicting perspectives is conveyed in Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson through race and justice. Guterson draws upon characterisation and symbolism in order to highlight how the prejudice nature of society affects decisions. Conflicting perspectives are also present in ‘Salute’, a documentary by Matthew Norman that is set in the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games and explores the conflicting perspective of discrimination of race. Through interviews with Peter Norman, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, we are able to see their perspectives versing the Medias on black power.
A non-linear plot is utilised in Snow Falling on Cedars to provide the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters. Ishmael Chambers has a broken heart and a missing arm which haunts him about war and Hatsue’s rejection. This is also what turns him bitter and resentful and he develops an anti-social shell where he observes others and remains an outsider. Ishmael Chambers is given evidence to change the course of Hatsue’s husband, Kabuo Miyamoto, trial and is left with the decision to either inflict revenge upon Hatsue for her rejection or find the courage and maturity to accept circumstances and exonerate Kabuo Miyamoto in the trial. The conflicting decision Ishmael must make could impact the lives of others and we are able to see how at first Ismael struggles to come to terms with circumstances and chooses revenge but he soon learns that the right thing to do is help Kabuo and move on with his life. Hatsue Imada suffers internal conflict when deciding whether to follow her Japanese culture or the American culture she has attached to. Hatsue is calm and tranquil on the outside but has inner turmoil. She is faced with choosing duty over desire. Her duty is to her mother and her culture and her desire to be able to be happy, unrestrained by demands of society ad culture. Hatsue chooses to honour her culture and marry a Japanese man, Kabuo Miyamoto, and rejects Ishmael Chambers by sending him a letter. Throughout the novel, Hatsue tries to reconcile conflicting values of individualistic idealism and stoic passivity but this struggle never ends for her. Kabuo Miyamoto is a Japanese man who is also Buddhist. Because of his Japanese culture, he subjected to prejudice and has been charged with murder. He is innocent but the trial is very long and ugly one that would have ended in a guilty verdict if it was not for Ishmael handing in evidence that would save him from jail. Kabuo also went to war and fought for America. It was very traumatic for Kabuo because he believes in karma so he thought ‘he might pay for his war murder’, hence being charged with murder. War haunts Kabuo the way that Hatsue’s rejection haunts Ishmael. Kabuo is seen as cold, removed and guilty by society because he wears a mask that is unreadable that allows society to see him as man that is hiding something. Kabuo had to make the choice whether or not to go to the sheriff and tell him that he was the last one to speak to Carl Heine; who was murdered. He chooses not too which arouses suspicion that he murdered Carl over getting his families land back. At first, Kabuo sees his trial as unfair and unjust and gives up on trying getting out jail because he thinks he deserves it and because he stands no chance with the jury because of societies prejudice against the Japanese. Although he loves his family, he chooses to put himself at the mercy of chance because he believes that he doesn’t own the right to decide his future.
Snow Falling on Cedars creates imagery as well as symbolism. Snow is contradictory in nature and interpretation as it beautifies as it destroys and it covers and it cleanses. It is symbolic of snow covering and burying the relationship between Hatsue and Ishmael. Snow also symbolises concealment, specifically Hatsue and Ishmaels forbidden love. Kabuo sees the snow as “infinitely beautiful” and is reflective of his calm exterior in court and the internal fury he harbours about his families land and war experiences. Ishmael links the snow with his childhood. “He hoped that it would snow recklessly” like it did when he was teenager because it was “so rare and precious”. The snow to Hatsue is simply just snow but when Ishmael makes the decision to hand in the evidence that got Kabuo out of jail, she sees the snow as “pure”. Cedar trees are associated with strength, longevity and antiquity. “This place, this tree, was safe” is referring to the cedar tree where Ishmael and Hatsue meet and becomes symbolic of their relationship and how it is removed, hidden and private. The cedar tree represents an escape from the prejudice society; once in the tree they can do what they want but once out they are restricted. The cedar tree also prevents Ishmael and Hatsue’s relationship from developing as their relationship is not realistic. The cedar tree is also more literally shelter Ishmael and Hatsue’s and keeps their secret from the rest of society. The cedar tree will always represent Ishmael and Hatsue’s love. For Hatsue, the cedar tree equals a temptation. She turns her back on temptation and ends her relationship with Ishmael. Hatsue knows that if she gives in to temptation she won’t be able to turn Ishmael away again. For Ishmael the cedar tree represents the endurance of their love. He has an unrealistic vision that he still has a chance with Hatsue even though she is married with kids. The cedar tree is where his heart leads him but Hatsue chooses to follow her mind rather than her heart leaving him alone in life.
‘Salute’ follows Peter Norman, an Australian running legend who supported fellow runners; Smith and Carlos, when they raised their hand with a black glove in the air, clenched in a fist. To Norman, Smith and Carlos, they were trying to demonstrate the equality of African-Americans in America but the world perceived it as the rise of black power. In this time period, it was not uncommon to see signs where separate sinks were labelled ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’, or ‘We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone’ due to discriminatory world. The black glove on the clenched fist represented unity and strength. The stadium went silent when Smith and Carlos raised their fist in the air even the singer of the national anthem went quiet. The conflicting perspective was that the media began writing that Smith and Carlos were betraying their country by raising their fist. Peter Norman supported his fellow runners because he was brought up to believe in equality. The film features some still photos of Norman’s family in Salvation Army uniforms which reinforces his belief system and shows that he supported his fellow runners because it was the ‘right’ thing to do. “There was no such thing as discrimination. It was a matter of men are created equal” is what the 3 men, Norman, Smith and Carlos believed in and when this is being said, the documentary juxtaposes this with film of race riots in the US and Australia so the audience can understand the conflicting perspectives over this event. The discrimination of colour that escaladed post 1968 Olympics was outrageous. Martin Luther King, the American black civil rights leader’s famous speech “I have a dream” preached peaceful protest but he was gunned down in 1968 which caused further riots. There were cover ups of deaths when nearly 2000 people were killed, the media reported 30 deaths. The U.S government and the Mexican Government, they covered the slums of the city with fences that were filled with posters. “Looked between the posters and I could see the slums of the city there” is said by Carlos. Norman ultimately believed “in human rights. The fact that we were in different teams, our skins were different colours, didn’t make much difference.”
The representation of conflicting perspectives are integral parts of the novel ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ and the documentary ‘Salute’. This is shown through the discrimination of race and justice. The prejudice society that Kabuo lived in affected his and his family’s life dramatically and the discrimination of colour during the 1968 Mexico Olympics change Peter Norman, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ life forever.
Snow Falling on Cedars: Contrasting Characters and Their Meaning
Much is revealed about Ishmael Chambers, the main character in David Guterson’s novel Snow Falling on Cedars through contrast. Readers are able to come to a better understanding of Ishmael once his beliefs and motives are contrasted with those of other characters in the novel. Through his interactions with Hatsue Imada – his childhood girlfriend – it becomes clear that for him, love conquers all while for her, things aren’t so black and white. Kabuo Miyamoto, a key character in the novel can also be contrasted with Ishmael in order to reveal more about his character. While they have both experienced war and been changed by it, the different ways in which they perceive their experience tells us much about Ishmael. Lastly, Ishmael’s mother – Helen Chambers – voices a very different set of beliefs to her son and this contrast provides us with further detail. There are of course, many things that only Ishmael can teach us about himself but in contrasting him with other characters, we gain a better insight into what makes Ishmael who he is.
The relationship between Ishmael Chambers and Hatsue Imada is central to Snow Falling on Cedars and the completely different way that the two react to their relationship enhances our ability to understand Ishmael’s character. During the throws of World War II, when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbour, San Piedro experiences great racial tension. Hatsue, who is Japanese American and whose parents can barely speak English recognises the fact that being in a relationship with an American boy could be ill-fated. Even prior to Pearl Harbour, Hatsue feels tremendous guilt for seeing Ishmael. Her parents would not approve and in order to spend time with him, Hatsue must lie to them and this is hugely detrimental to her spirit. Ishmael, in great contrast, is unable to be realistic or see the bigger picture as he is consumed with love for Hatsue and cares little for any negative consequences that may result. While Hatsue uses her head, Ishmael follows his heart and this key difference proves that Ishmael loves Hatsue much more than she loves him. “How can this be evil? It wouldn’t make any sense for this to be evil. It’s the world that’s evil, Hatsue…don’t pay it any mind.” “That isn’t so easy…I lie every day to my family Ishmael…Sometimes I think this can’t go on.” This imbalance of love is what ends their relationship but despite Hatsue’s rejection of Ishmael, he continues to love her and is influenced by this love throughout the novel. The way in which Hatsue moves on with her life, marries Kabuo and has three children contrasts hugely with Ishmael’s inability to move on. When Hatsue’s husband faces going to jail for murder, he is so obsessed with the possibility of rekindling their love that he withholds key evidence which would prove Kabuo’s innocence. “His father, of course, would have gone hours earlier…to show him the coast guard shipping lane records…but not Ishmael, not now – no. Those records would stay in his pocket.” Hatsue’s obvious disinterest highlights Ishmael’s weakness and shows just how disillusioned his character is.
Despite Ishmael and Kabuo not interacting in the novel, their parallel existences epitomise cultural differences and reveal another side of Ishmael. There are certainly some similarities between Kabuo and Ishmael: both love Hatsue, both fight in the war and both come home different men. Ishmael returns a cynical and bitter man who can barely stomach day to day life for its flippancy. Someone who never voiced racist views came away from war blaming the entire Japanese race for the loss of his arm, “The Japs did it, they shot my arm off”. His bitterness can be boiled down to the fact that he still loves Hatsue – a Japanese woman – who rejected him; the Japanese race is his scapegoat. Kabuo’s perception of wartime is quite the opposite. While he is deeply affected and disturbed by his experiences, he does not have a scapegoat and holds himself responsible for how he feels. “He was a Buddhist and believed in the laws of karma, so it made sense to him that he might pay for his war murders: everything comes back to you, nothing is accidental.” Despite not killing Carl Heine, it makes sense to Kabuo that he should serve the punishment. It is here that the gap between Ishmael and Kabuo widens. Kabuo, as a Buddhist feels that nothing is accidental, that everything happens for a reason while Ishmael believes the opposite: “…that accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart.” In Ishmael’s opinion, it is only love that is predestined but above all, he cannot be held accountable for what happens in his life.
Ishmael’s mother plays a small role but her presence is important, it provides another contrast which sheds light on Ishmael’s personality. Religion is addressed throughout the novel, the majority of the white Islanders are Christian and the Japanese are Buddhist but it is not until a discussion between Ishmael and his mother that we see his views. Helen Chambers is clear in her views; she is a Christian and tries to encourage her son to feel God, believing that He will provide Ishmael with inner peace. Ishmael reveals that he does not believe in God, simply because he is unable to feel his presence “After the war he had tried to feel God, to take solace in Him. It hadn’t worked…”It is as if negativity has permeated Ishmael’s being and on the rare occasion that he does seek harmony, it is unreachable. Helen Chambers cannot bear to see Ishmael so incomplete and suggests that if he can’t find solace in God, finding love and starting a family is the only solution. She is unaware of Ishmael’s love for Hatsue and cannot comprehend why he has not already found someone. “When it comes down to it – to answer your question – here’s what you should do about being unhappy: you should get married and have some children.” “That isn’t going to happen…that’s not the answer to the question.” Ishmael is quick to disagree with his mother’s notion, obviously because he can not and will not look past Hatsue. Ishmael’s mother suggests measures he can take to improve his quality of life because she loves him and truly believes that her way is the best way. This conversation, full of conflicting opinions clearly illustrates how Ishmael dwells in and thrives on self-pity; he is unwilling to move forward.
Through the contrasting of characters in Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson teaches us a great deal about the central character Ishmael Chambers. The contrast between Hatsue and Ishmael is the most tragic, as they perceive their love very differently and this is what ends their relationship. Ishmael devotes his heart to Hatsue even after she has given hers to Kabuo. Guterson very effectively contrasts Ishmael with Kabuo and his mother Helen Chambers to teach us about his beliefs and the continuance of his obsession with Hatsue. To a certain extent we are able to learn about characters in isolated scenarios but it is not until characters are contrasted with others that we can fully understand them.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson: Theme Analysis
Relationships can end up with consequences whether there with parents or strangers. In the story “Snow Falling on Cedars” by David Guterson he explores and dives deep into this theme by using Hatsue and Ishmael’s relationship as an example. Hatsue started the relationship behind her mother’s back and it’s coming back to hurt her, at the same time her mother is limiting her by trying to help her. Fujiko needs to realize as people become older including her daughter they have to take responsibility for their actions. Her trying to fix it herself isn’t the right thing for her to do, it should be Hatsue doing it herself. At a point in time people have to become responsible for their own actions and need to take care of and deal with their own situations; Hatsue is the one that is trying to handle it herself and her mother is the one not letting her do it.
Hatsue’s been hiding the relationship with Ishmael, she doesn’t know whether her parents would approve or not. When she decided to start being with Ishmael she was much younger and wasn’t thinking right, in her older age she knows it’s not right but Fujiko doesn’t see it that way. She says Hatsue doesn’t know what she’s doing when she says “deceiving me is only half of it. You have deceived yourself too”, she knows that Hatsue is still young and learning but doesn’t think she can take care of it herself. Hatsue instead of denying it immediately says she was hiding this from her family, she isn’t as passionate and headstrong about her and Ishmael’s relationship now than when she was when she decided to hide it from her parents. In that time frame she has realized that risking her parent’s trust for something she doesn’t know if she wants or not isn’t worth it, her understanding has improved enough for her to know what is worth fighting for and what isn’t. Her mother isn’t allowing the relationship not because she doesn’t like it but because it was behind her back, she is being overprotective of her daughter. It’s evident that Hatsue is mature enough to take responsibility for the irresponsible decisions she has made; she has changed from when she made the initial decision to present time where she can take responsibility for the consequences.
Instead of letting her mother, Fujiko, end the relationship, Hatsue decides to end it herself. Under the pressure of her mother ending the relationship her choice reveals more about her character and the qualities she has that her mother thinks she doesn’t. The reaction to open up and tell her mother the truth of what she wants to do, her motivation, and how it’s better for her to do it herself shows how much shes progressed to become an adult. She started the relationship behind her parent’s backs and telling no one about it to owning up to it and wanting to end it herself. Hatsue reflects and tells her mother the reasons that she made the choice showing her ability to make someone else understand why and what her thought process was for her to act like the way she did. The thoughts on the train show her indecisiveness and how even though she risked things for them to be together behind their families backs she knows that it isn’t something she should have done and it’s something she needs to own up to herself. That indecisiveness is something she recognizes she had for too long and didn’t help her situation; that ability to self reflect and know what a person have done wrong when it is themselves shows that they can be held responsible and take of their own actions. Hatsue is that person and Fujiko isn’t letting her be the woman she is, she is still treating her as a child. Hatsue’s shown that she is a grown adult by expressing and telling her mother what and why she had taken those actions, her motivations were childish and she knows that. The outcome of her actions is that her mother lets her end that relationship herself. Fujiko has evidence that her daughter isn’t a small child she has to baby and take care of, its both of there faults for being in the situation and they are both in the wrong. Hatsue knows that she has left the problem unattended for too long and that she made a dumb decision, her character has developed to become more dynamic. The way she thinks and takes actions has changed because she knows that old decisions can end up affecting her relationships with her friend Ishmael and her mother Fujiko. Fujiko has changed as well from Hatsue’s actions, her daughter has changed from one person to another in her head. While Hatsue is still learning and unexperienced her mother now knows that not letting her take care of her problems herself is more harmful than helpful, Hatsue is at that point that she has to take responsibility and deal with the consequences of her own actions; Fujiko isn’t helping by taking care of it herself. That’s why at the climax of the story Fujiko lets Hatsue cut off ties with Ishmael herself, it’s in her best intentions to help Hatsue become an adult. Hatsue has become an adult that can take care of her own actions and responsibilities, it’s clearly shown through the entirety of the story.
The story “Snow Falling on Cedar” deals with the theme of people like Hatsue having to transition into a more responsible and mature person but being limited by an overbearing parent. Fujiko wants her child to become an adult but didn’t see it was her limiting Hatsue, in the end of the story Hatsue has convinced her that she was doing it wrong. By being able to tell her mother the reasons why and what her intentions were to do now she managed to convince Fujiko that it’s best for her to end the relationship with Ishmael herself, she made the decision to start it and she should be the one to end it. That time frame between when she started it and now when she is ending it shows how she has become a much different person. She knows that her indecisiveness isn’t something she should let linger and that the choices she makes have consequences that she has to deal with. Hatsue is someone that can take those consequences and deal with them, Fujiko now knows that she can trust Hatsue to do the right thing. She isn’t a child anymore, she is a fully capable adult that can do things herself
Ishmael’s Story: A Fragmented Bildungsroman
In David Guterson’s award-winning 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars, the story centers around the murder trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, using the testimony as a vehicle to tell a multigenerational story about the island’s fraught history from the perspective of many different characters. With each testimony and flashback, the reader gets a small, fractured piece of each character’s identity and personal history that they must stitch together to create a holistic profile of the character. For some, the sum of these pieces is large, painting a thorough picture of the character’s identity and growth. For others, the reader are given mere wisps of information. Throughout the book, the character who gets arguably the most time and development dedicated to his story is a figure whose connection to the trial, at least at the beginning, seems merely tangential: Ishmael Chambers, the reporter. Through fragmented pieces of testimony, flashback, and dialogue, Gutterson tells a rich, holistic, and arcing story of Ishmael’s coming-of-age from ten years old to his mid-thirties. In this way, the novel becomes a sort of fragmented bildungsroman about Ishmael and his eternal quest to “recognize his place in the world” (Howe). Though Ishmael gets his full story told, it is by no means the novel’s only story — different from usual coming-of-age stories which tend to focus on the linear development of a single character. Instead, Guterson integrates Ishmael’s bildungsroman into the drama of the trial and mingles it with many other stories, showing that everyone’s journey — however personal or individualistic it may be — is ultimately connected to everyone else’s and it’s stakes often reach far beyond our own stories.
Traditionally, a bildungsroman novels focuses on the linear development of character’s moral, intellectual, and psychological selves as they come to “recognize their place in the world” (Howe). However, Guterson chooses to introduce Ishmael towards the end of his trajectory — at a time when he seems bitterly, but ambiguously rejecting of any community as his “place” — and instead works (somewhat-sporadically) backwards, detailing Ishmael’s cyclical uptake and loss of community and place in the world. As readers, we are first introduced to Ishmael in his reprised role as a journalist, one he has inherited from his father. Within his hometown, doing his father’s job, Ishmael finds comfort in the protective, secluded unity of Amity Harbor — a place where he could be “one of them.” However, Ishmael still seems to carry a nagging sense of dissatisfaction, constantly reminded that San Piedro is not “where he wants to be” and perturbed by feelings of exclusion from the fisherman-camaraderie that exists for most other men on the island. The origins of this placelessness seem originally ambiguous but gain clarity with the first revelation (or rather, more detailed description) about Ishmael’s past: he is a veteran. Drawing back into the past, Guterson blames Ishmael’s inability to “emulate his father” or find “his place” within the community of journalists “on this matter of the war—this matter of the arm he’d lost.” In doing so, however, Guterson ironically places Ishmael in his first (or last, if we are thinking chronologically) community, one of veterans, even if it is a community defined by “disturbed…cynicism” and the sense of something missing.
After moving backwards into the past order to give the reader a shallow understanding of Ishmael’s bitter origins, Guterson switches tacts and starts from the beginning: ten year old Ishmael meeting ten year old Hatsue. Here is where the bildungsroman truly begins to take shape. Classically, these coming-of-age stories feature their main character as stuck within an “unbending social order” and mark the developmental spark of a character’s internal conflict, usually regarding their decision to strive against these constructs (Howe). Bonding with Hatsue over their shared love of the ocean, Ishmael timidly pushes the boundaries of the island’s tense race-relations and feels “a knot of pressure building inside him” — the brewing conflict between his growing love for Hatsue and “the judgments enforced by the [island’s] unbending social order” that separate the Japanese from the white people (Howe). In a decision that could be called his bildungsroman Call (an action against the social order that spurs the character on their journey towards spiritual or psychological growth), Ishmael kisses Hatsue and “decides then that he would love her forever no matter what came to pass..despite [his worry] that this kiss was wrong.” This decision marks the beginning of a long romance between the two, at once childishly “gentle” and dangerously clandestine. Inside of their cedar tree, Ishmael finds his first “place in the world.” Despite the rebellious, intense nature of Ishmael’s relationship with Hatsue, however, this period of time functions less as the maturation stage of Ishmael’s Bildungsroman and more as an extension of his “hero’s call.” Unlike Hatsue, Ishmael remains naively ignorant of the true impracticality of their relationship and instead enshrines it with an immature sense of romantic, beautiful rebellion.
As a result of this idealism, when Hatsue is forced into the internment camps and ends her relationship with Ishmael, he is met with bitter, profound disappointment that sets him on a new path of heightened emotional complexity (another common characteristic of bildungsroman novels). This moment serves as a turning point for Ishmael into a stage of long-suffering “maturation,” characterized by a sense of internal anguish as he attempts reconcile his love for Hatsue and his resentment of her, his desire to live up to his father’s journalistic integrity and his desire to be angry, his belief in universal unfairness and in personal responsibility. Joining the army and losing his arm (an event that he indirectly blames Hatsue for, curing “that Jap bitch”), begging a married-Hatsue to “hold him,” and failing to survive school in seattle, Ishmael evolves into the bitter, morally ambiguous person we meet in the beginning of the novel. Now, however, the reader understands that the war is not the cause of Ishmael’s internal unrest. Hatsue is. His missing arm is but an emblem for his missing love. Neither protestants nor advice swaying Ishmael from this state, it seems that he would anguish away in this state of emotional limbo had it not been for the information he discovered proving Kabuo’s innocence. This discovery serves as a pivotal moment in Ishmael’s bildungsroman, forcing him to decide once and for all whether to scorn Hatsue or save her. Ultimately, spurred on by a reminder of Hatsue’s former love and faith in his “large…heart,” Ishmael cycles back to his Call stage and chooses to be the romantic,rebel, hero he built himself up as once again. This time, though, it comes not from a naive belief that he can be with Hatsue, but from a genuine desire to be the “gentle and kind” person “who will do great things,” for Hatsue, for his father, and (finally) for himself.
Focusing on Ishmael, it is easy to become swept up in his rich and dynamic character arch, seeing every other relationship and event in the novel as somehow a tangential component of this central story. Ultimately, however, Guterson’s choice to include such a well-developed bildungsroman within the larger vignette-style narrative of the trial serves an important point: Ishmael’s coming of age — though deeply-personal and largely an internal shift — affects everyone around him. Traditionally, bildungsromans and hero-epics follow a single character, focusing on how their choices affect their own trajectory. Little is said about what they leave in their wakes. In Ishmael’s case, however, his pivotal decision to hand in the information is not just a moment of personal revelation but a choice that can, quite literally, determine whether another man lives or dies. For every moment we watch Ishmael pine over Hatsue, we see her embroiled in her own internal conflict of shame, confusion, and conflicting cultural expectations that he seems entirely ignorant of. As Ishmael vacillates between a racist hatred for the Japanese and an simultaneous urge to defend them, we watch San Piedro’s Japanese population struggle to navigate these same blurred lines. This ironically becomes Ishmael’s primary character flaw and source of his immaturity: he sees his life as a bildungsroman. Within this mindset, he allows himself to make decisions out of hatred, unrequited love, and desperation — as though these choices are mere building blocks of personal development — and fails, time and again, to see the implications these choices have on the people around him.
In his sweeping novel Snow Falling On Cedars, which spans generations and shares the often conflicting stories many different characters, Guterson paints an intimate and detailed picture of San Piedro Island and it’s fraught history. Among each of the narrative’s given for each of the characters, Ishmael’s story stands out. It is both longer and more detailed than the rest (except maybe for Hatsue’s) and unlike any of the other narratives, it details dynamic and powerful character growth. As Ishmael grows from a naive, idealist young boy into a bitter, conflicted man and finally, in the end, into a more balanced, mature, and fulfilled person, his story takes on the trajectory of a bildungsroman. However, unlike the traditional coming-of-age novel in which the focus remains fixed on its main character, Snow Falling on Cedars explores the impact Ishmael’s internal story has on the world around him. Ultimately, it demonstrates that no matter how individualistic, how solipsistic our personal journeys may seem, they are inevitably entangled within the stories of everyone around us.
Reason and Chance
“There are things in this universe that we cannot control, and then there are the things we can…let fate, coincidence, and accident conspire; human beings must act on reason” (Guterson 418). Reason, especially in the eyes and hands of human beings, is a very fickle thing in David Guterson’s novel Snow Falling on Cedars. It is applied and interpreted in different ways by different people, and often, it is incorrectly done so. Etta Heine believes it is pure reason that causes her to ignore the agreement between her dead husband and Zenhichi Miyamoto and instead sell her land to Ole Jurgensen; however, it is only undiluted prejudice. Despite this, there are also those on San Piedro Island who do understand reason in both concept and practice. Nels Gudmundsson is an examples of one of these people, as is Kabuo Miyamoto. On the island of San Piedro, reason and the lack there of collide constantly, leaving indelible stains on all of the islanders. It is the colliding of reason and irrationalism that controls the lives of all of the islanders and that brings them all to where they are when Kabuo Miyamoto is tried for murder.
In Snow Falling on Cedars, Nels Gudmundsson is one of the few characters to represent reason. Though he is in his late seventies with declining health, his intelligence remains highly astute. There is no attorney that could do better by Kabuo Miyamoto, for no attorney could be as willing and capable as Nels to look past skin color and eye slant and the general blind belief of the island that Kabuo is guilty, because of these physical characteristics. Nels’ treatment of his client is that of the utmost humanity and respect, without the vicious pervasion of prejudice so prevalent among most of San Piedro Island. In courtroom recesses, he steps away and encourages the deputy Abel Martinson to do the same so that Kabuo and his wife Hatsue may speak in private, unseparated by a pane of glass. When they first meet, Nels brings Kabuo two chocolate bars without acknowledging his charity, something he knew Kabuo would find humiliating. In the same visit, Nels also shows Kabuo his complete indifference to skin color over a friendly game of chess by having no preference for the white or black chess pieces. When Nels determines, not decides, that Kabuo is not telling him the whole, honest truth about the events of the night of Carl Heine’s death, he pushes him for the truth without disrespecting him, or for the purpose everyone else has of proving him guilty just because of the color of his skin. He truly wants to do his job to the best of his ability, to help vindicate Kabuo and return him to his family. Nels is able to treat his client with the fairness, equality and open-mindedness so many of the islanders are incapable of because he understands reason. He listens to Kabuo and looks at the facts, and in the courtroom he implores both the jurors and the audience to do the same, and to resist the subtle appeals the prosecutor Alvin Hooks makes to their racism.
Nels is the champion of reason, but his client Kabuo is its steady, quiet proponent. Kabuo withholds the truth for as long as he does, from the sheriff and from Nels, because he has every reason to believe that the truth would be just as, if not more, detrimental to his legal standing. As he tells Nels, “This island [is] full of strong feelings…people who do [not] often speak their minds but hate on the inside all the same…they hate anyone who looks like the soldiers they fought” (391). Kabuo is absolutely accurate in this statement. It is the truth, unaffected by Kabuo’s resentment for it. Kabuo knows that he, like all of the other islanders of Japanese descent, is not trusted by the citizens of San Piedro or by the United States government. He knows that he has been wronged by the family of Carl Heine, the man who was his good friend when they were boys. He knows that they are friends no longer because the men Carl calls enemies during the second World War have similar faces to Kabuo, while the men Kabuo fights in Europe resemble Carl. Kabuo is angry and resentful and haunted when he returns from the war, but not to the point where he decompensates. He retains his ability to rationalize, his understanding and respect of reason, and this is what allows him to help Carl on the night of his death, as morality can best follow reason. Kabuo could have surrendered to pettiness and bitterness, but he never even considers such because he sees Carl stranded in the water with a fully depleted battery, in need of help. He does not push Carl to sell him the seven acres owed to his family because he knows such pressure would only be counterproductive. The presumption among many of the islanders is that Kabuo kills Carl because he wants the land Carl has just recently purchased from Ole Jurgensen, seven acres of which are the ones that were essentially stolen from the Miyamoto family. Kabuo, however, recognizes that “the world [is] one world, and the notion that a man might kill another over some small patch of it [does] not make sense” (321). Kabuo only helps Carl, reaches an agreement about the land, shakes Carl’s hand, and returns to his own boat and leaves. He does nothing unreasonable.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Carl Heine’s mother, Etta. Etta is bitterly, unrelentingly racist, and subsequently incapable of treating Kabuo Miyamoto in the manner reason (as well as basic human decency) demands.She takes advantage of her husband’s death and Carl’s being away at war to sell their farm to Ole Jurgensen, including the seven acres Zenhichi Miyamoto makes all but the last two payments on. These last two payments, due in 1942, are missed only because San Peidro’s entire Japanese population is sent to internment camps far off, where completion of the payments is simply not possible. When Kabuo confronts her about the land owed to him, the land she wastes no time in selling to Ole Jurgensen without regard for the contract between her husband and Kabuo’s father, Etta says “[she has not] done anything a bank would [not] do. [She has not] done anything wrong” (138), a belief to which Kabuo responds “[she has not] done anything illegal…wrong is a different matter” (138). Kabuo is right; Etta does not decide and act according to a sense of right and wrong, she acts according to “a thin veneer of cheap” (301) reason. Her attempt at justification is that there is little economic sense in selling the seven acres to Zenhichi Miyamoto so that when his eldest son Kabuo reaches the age of twenty he may be a landowner. While she does truly care about money, in both this particular instance and in general, it is not, as she asserts, her main concern and source of opposition against the sale. Her reason for such is as abominably simple as racism. Without any evidence to support this, and actually only evidence to the contrary, Etta is distrustful of Zenhichi. As her husband Carl Senior points out, he and his family are hard workers, quiet and neat, but Etta hears none of it because she has already decided, rather than determined, what kind of people the Miyamotos are, just by the color of their skin. Etta employs racism and hate in her assessments, but because of her complete lack of reason, she is unwilling and incapable of recognizing herself as a deplorable, irrational woman.
San Piedro Island is a place full of unspoken hate. No one ever says anything about the discrepancy between the treatment of the white and Japanese citizens, but everyone knows it exists, and most encourage and enable it. They call this reasonable, as the “Japs” cannot be trusted. Most islanders think it perfectly logical to quarantine all Japanese persons living in America because they look like the enemy, and therefore they might actually be. Just as there is no reason behind the internment camps, there is no reason behind the murder trial of Kabuo Miyamoto. He is there because of racism and the complete absence of rationale that allows for it. Years before Carl Heine even dies, Etta Heine builds the foundation for the accusation of Kabuo by stealing the land owed to him, and she never repents in any way, or even realizes that she should. Luckily for Kabuo, Nels Gudmundsson is a man of reason, a man willing to look at the facts before developing theories rather than developing theories before examining all of the facts, and this is what makes him the best defense attorney for Kabuo. Reason, in the end, triumphs over irrationality.