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Snow Falling On Cedars Conflicting Perspectives Essay

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Struggle Between Free Will and Chance

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.

The Cyclical Nature of Prejudice

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.

The Limits of Knowledge

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.

More main ideas from Snow Falling on Cedars

David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars contains a number of intersecting themes. First is the love theme between Ishmael Chambers and Hatsue Miyamoto that serves as both a bridge between the two cultural and racial groups and an example of how unbridgeable the gulf ultimately turns out to be. Second is the broader theme of community prejudice against the Japanese, which is brought to the surface by the entry of the United States into World War II. Third is the presence of a snowstorm, an event that underlies the tensions engendered by the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto.

The love affair between Ishmael and Hatsue complicates the narrative by creating a conflict of interest when Ishmael discovers the exculpating evidence. If he withholds it, and if Kabuo is convicted, then perhaps Ishmael will be able to rekindle his affection for Hatsue. Ishmael must overcome this rather pathetic state of mind to assume the mantle of his father. The love affair also provides an example of how children can transcend the prejudice of their parents. The affair also highlights differences that may prove insurmountable. In this case, Ishmael’s immaturity and Hatsue’s untenable situation—being confined at Manzanar—also play a part in the disillusion of their relationship. The love theme then works in multiple ways to inform the narrative.

Ishmael’s problems are compounded by his disability caused by war. The loss of his arm makes him less of a man,...

(The entire section is 469 words.)

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