The Morally Ambiguous Ishmael Chambers

February 7, 2019 by Essay Writer

David Guterson’s 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars spans three days detailing the murder trial of Japanese-American fisherman and family man Kabuo Miyamoto, all the while shifting in and out of real time to discuss the events leading up to it. Perhaps one of the novel’s most exceptional features is its very personal attention to each and every character; in reminiscing on anecdotes from their pasts, Guterson offers implicit explanations as to why these characters are the way they are and how they came to play their respective roles in the trial. One such character, to whom Guterson pays especially close attention, is Ishmael Chambers. The many facets of Ishmael’s persona–including his occupation as a journalist, his veteranship, and his teenage romance with the defendant’s wife–all contribute to a great deal of moral ambiguity. When ardent love and good ideals clash with spite and prejudice, Ishmael’s judgment is put to the test, but his eventual character arch elucidates an ultimate capacity for compassion–and furthermore, the importance of such compassion in a world of injustice.

The ambiguous nature of Ishmael’s moral compass can first be seen in his childhood; while he is not an outright bad person, he is without a doubt naïve, forceful, and sentimental to a fault. Upon first developing feelings for Hatsue at the age of fourteen, he begins a borderline obsessive pursuit of her, resolving to “love her forever … certain that she [feels] the same way” (100), despite the fact of her running away after their kiss. This fantasy speaks to the degree of naïveté and self-interested obliviousness plaguing Ishmael’s character, but Guterson elaborates shortly thereafter that the fourteen-year-old feels “perturbed, too … worried that the kiss was wrong,” thereby establishing a more morally conscious side in him. Over the following years, as both characters come of age, Ishmael continues to pine after her in a manner which readers might regard as creepy; it is even noted that he might be “labeled a Peeping Tom” (104), which of course does little good for the portrayal of his moral compass. Even after Hatsue does come around, his advances are noticeably too forceful as he initiates sex and a marriage proposal and essentially a huge catharsis of his obsession all at once. And so, by the end of these teenage flashbacks, the lovestruck Ishmael Chambers is left with an ambiguous read. The strength of his love, some might argue, is out of his control, thus making his actions permissible and even admirable. Others, however, might argue that he is immoral–or pitiful, at best–for surrendering his agency to an unhealthy infatuation.

Entering his young adulthood after Hatsue’s inevitable termination of their fling, a change occurs in Ishmael. In potent contrast to his excessively-sentimental past self, he becomes cold and seemingly heartless, partially due to the war and partially due to the breakup. Despite his transformation, however, his moral compass is really not the least bit improved. He merely exchanges his previous character flaws for new ones, exposing himself as a vindictive person prone to extremes and easily influenced by toil. This version of Ishmael becomes perhaps the most unlikable one when, in searching for justification to hate Hatsue, he turns to prejudice. Immediately following his injury in the war, he remarks, “‘that fucking goddamn Jap bitch’” (251) to no one in particular. And at a later run-in with Hatsue at the grocery store, after she asks about his missing arm, he “flatly” tells her that “‘the Japs did it’” (332). His coldness in these moments, most readers will agree, is inhumane and impermissible, pushing him far toward the negative end of the moral spectrum and nearly past redemption in the eyes of Guterson’s more critical readers. And unfortunately, this is the Ishmael that carries over to the real time trial. While slightly less outward with his anger than he was directly after the war, the real-time Ishmael remains quietly haunted by his past sentiments as he stands with “a deliberately controlled hysteria … watching [Hatsue] in the courtroom” (93). At this juncture, needless to say, his moral compass is looking down.

As impossible as it may seem, Ishmael’s redemption does indeed occur, albeit slowly. The trial at hand presents a complex dilemma and a sea of moral ambiguity for the journalist, and three days’ time proves to be just enough for the introspection and change-of-heart required to renew his sense of morality. Naturally, said dilemma lies in his occupation–an occupation burdened with the task of balancing cold, hard truths with personal, empathetic insight. Ishmael, of course, tends towards extremes and consequently struggles with both sides of this balance. His perceptions of truth and empathy alike are skewed by his buried feelings for the defendant’s wife, creating a bias against Kabuo and in favor of the prosecution. This bias is best exemplified when his mother asks about the case, at which point he “grows cold” and replies that he “‘has to think he’s guilty … [because] the evidence is very solidly against him’” (343), despite his own evidence exonerating Kabuo. Again, a frustrating lack of agency becomes evident here as he fails to take ownership of his spite, clinging instead to his cold and falsely impartial façade. Fortunately, Helen Chambers challenges him, saying that he is “‘allowing [himself] an imbalance’” (345) and suggesting that he reconsider. Her response, though simple, is essential to his impending character arch. In the dialogue that follows, he opens up ever so slightly, heeding her advice and discarding a bit of apathy for empathy. His resolve does not become truly fixed, though, until afterwards when he revisits the breakup letter from Hatsue. This letter, in his final moments of reflection before bringing forth the evidence, serves as a physical, concrete connection between past and present. When reading Hatsue’s description of him as “gentle and kind … [with] a large heart,” (442), his present presumably emotionless self is forced to meet his past excessively-sentimental one. And therein lies an affirmation of that imbalance with which he has always struggled, coupled with the realization that he is no longer a person characterized by any bit of kindness or gentleness. In a climactic regrasp of agency, he puts the letter away and exonerates the husband of the woman he loves. He does what is right, no longer a mere bystander but rather a strong character with a strong sense of self and of justice.

Whether to forgive Ishmael for his shortcomings and accept his growth is of course the personal decision of each reader alone, but regardless of such decisions, Ishmael undoubtedly remains a prime example of the struggle toward self-improvement. Guterson has succeeded in reminding readers that there exists a vast grey area on the spectrum of morality, and that people–both real and fictional–have the capability to move up and down that spectrum at will. Being morally conscious and compassionate, though not always an easy choice to make, is a choice nonetheless. And letting that choice pass by is one option, but taking ownership of it and making an unfair world a little fairer–as Ishmael Chambers does–is certainly a better one.

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