Critical Essays Characters, Symbols, Motifs, and Themes in Snow Falling on Cedars



Snow Falling on Cedars explores the notions of love and loss as they relate to racism, responsibility, and injustice. Every character in the novel is both directly and indirectly affected by what happens during World War II. For the most part, characters neither take nor accept responsibility for their thoughts and actions, and thus the war becomes the scapegoat.

Ishmael and Kabuo. An interesting parallel exists between Ishmael, the protagonist, and Kabuo, the character who would be the main character if Snow Falling on Cedars were only a murder mystery. Both island veterans returned scarred from the war but are not considered heroes. Both love Hatsue in the manner in which their respective cultures understand love. And both spend their time after the war carrying a grudge, longing to regain what was lost during the war. Ishmael lost the love of his life, his faith in God, and his arm. Kabuo lost his sense of honor and his family's land. Neither character is happy. In fact, Ishmael's mother is quick to tell him "'That you are unhappy, I have to say, is the most obvious thing in the world.'"

The biggest difference between the two is that Ishmael, in great part due to his anguish over Hatsue, blames the Japanese for his heartbreak and the loss of his arm. When Hatsue sees him after the war and notices his arm, Ishmael angrily says, "'The Japs did it. . . . They shot my arm off. Japs.'" Through much of the story, Ishmael is willing to hold an entire race of people responsible for the current state of his life.

Kabuo, on the other hand, feels a huge remorse over and responsibility for his wartime experiences. When Nels Gudmundsson tells him that the prosecution is seeking the death penalty, Guterson explains a key fact about Kabuo: "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."

The last sentence in the novel contrasts Kabuo's religious beliefs with Ishmael's understanding of the world when the reporter comes to understand "that accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart." When contrasting these two statements, it becomes clear that in spite of their similarities and in spite of their love for Hatsue, these men are very different in their understanding of love, life, and order. And, in many ways, this difference epitomizes the tension between the Japanese and Caucasian islanders.

Hatsue. Hatsue is forced to define herself in terms of either her Japanese or American culture but cannot have both. In order to do this, she lies to the two men in her life whom she loves, yet she lies to them for what she believes are the right reasons. Paradoxically, she comes to an understanding that in every loss there is a gain and in every gain there is a loss.

More than any other character in the book, Hatsue is able to live in the present. When Kabuo comes into her life, she recognizes that she can continue to mourn an impossible romance or create an acceptable life for herself, and so pursues a relationship with a man of her own ethnic heritage in spite of great sadness. From that time forward, she works successfully at putting Ishmael out of her mind. When Ishmael's memory creeps in, "it was not difficult for her, on her wedding night, to then cast Ishmael out of her mind completely; he had only crept in by accident, as it were, because all romantic moments are associated willy-nilly — even when some are long dead."

Both her mother and Mrs. Shigemura emphasize that Japanese women accept life as it befalls them without dwelling on the past, as Guterson explains, "Her [Hatsue's] life had always been strenuous — field work, internment, more field work on top of housework — but during this period under Mrs. Shigemura's tutelage she had learned to compose herself in the face of it. It was a matter in part of posture and breathing, but even more so of soul." Later, Hatsue's mother stresses, "The trick was to live here without hating yourself because all around you was hatred. The trick was to refuse to allow your pain to prevent you from living honorably."

Islanders. Most of the islanders continue the wartime prejudices and grudges. Life on San Piedro remains at war. Both sides distrust one another; both sides use wartime events as a basis for the distrust; and both sides really have no desire to find a happy medium. Although the war has ended, battles are still being fought, no doubt because the problems existed before the war began.

Prejudice reared its head in San Piedro when the first Japanese immigrants arrived around 1883. Even then "the census taker neglected to list them by name, referring instead to Jap Number 1, Jap Number 2, Jap Number 3, Japan Charlie, Old Jap Sam, Laughing Jap, Dwarf Jap, Chippy, Boots, and Stumpy — names of this sort instead of real names."

During the strawberry season, Caucasian and Japanese children work side by side, but otherwise the two cultures keep themselves separate from the other. Children of each group attend school together, but don't acknowledge each other in the hallways. Parents on both sides of the cultural gap warn their children about socializing with the other. Fujiko tells her daughters, "'You must live in this world, of course you must, and this world is the world of the hakujin . . . But don't allow living among the hakujin to become living intertwined with them.'" Similarly, when Carl Heine comes home with a fishing rod that Kabuo lent him, Etta insisted that he "take the fishing rod back to the Japs, they owed them money, the rod confused that. . . . 'You turn around and take it right on back.'"

The annual Strawberry Festival is the one time that the two sides come together as one community. The whole town comes in a sort of unspoken truce and "the Volunteer Fire Department played a softball game against the Japanese Community Center Team." Even in their games they are on separate teams. Every year, a young Japanese girl is crowned Strawberry Princess and becomes "an unwitting intermediary between two communities, a human sacrifice who allowed the festivities to go forward with no uttered ill will."

The White islanders divide themselves into two camps regarding interaction with the Japanese. Importantly, Carl Sr. and his wife, Etta, illustrate that two people in the same family can be on opposite sides of the cultural fence. Carl Heine, Sr. was willing to work around the law with Zenhichi as Etta testifies "The Miyamotos . . . couldn't really own land anyway. They were from Japan, both of them born there, and there was this law on the books prevented them." Yet as willing as Carl is to work with the Miyamotos, Etta's response is "'We're not such paupers as to sell to Japs, are we?'"

On the fringe of the islanders who have definite opinions are those like Ilse Severensen, people who claim to be fond of the Japanese and treat them well but whose "kindness had always been condescending, and [who] had always paid a bit extra for her berries with the air of doling out charity."

Carl Heine, Jr. Through the trial and the testimony of various witnesses, readers learn a great deal about Carl Heine, Jr. During his adolescence, his mother thinks of him as "a Great Dane puppy, bounding into her kitchen." As an adult, "He was silent, yes, and grave like his mother."

Readers learn the most about Carl from his wife, Susan Marie, but even to her he remains an enigma. Carl was very private, and Susan Marie had a difficult time reading him — "He did not like to explain or elaborate, and there was a part of him she couldn't get to. She attributed this to his war experiences." When Kabuo comes to talk with Carl about the seven acres, Susan Marie can't tell how Carl feels about the Japanese man, his former friend.

Although Carl doesn't appear to carry his mother's prejudices, he does respect her. When talking with his wife about selling the seven acres to Kabuo, Susan Marie expresses concern over how Etta would feel about that. Carl's response is "'It doesn't really come down to her. . . . It comes down to the fact that Kabuo's a Jap. And I don't hate Japs, but I don't like 'em neither. It's hard to explain. But he's a Jap.'" With this statement, readers realize that Carl Jr. is a composite of his parents, just as Etta had always hoped he would be.

Throughout the story, various characters explain Carl's quiet nature away as a result of the war. A quiet nature is seen as the sign of "the good man." Importantly, Guterson remarks that "San Piedro men learned to be silent." In this place, silence is valued — a trait that the White islanders share with the Japanese.

The fact that Carl is already dead when the story begins is a master stroke on Guterson's part. Readers are left to compose an image of the dead man based on other people's opinions of him and recollections of conversations. At all times, Carl appears to be a guarded man, so any conversations that people report is open to their own interpretation of what he was actually thinking. And because he is dead, readers are never allowed to hear Carl's thoughts as they hear Ishmael's, Hatsue's, and several others'. By the end of the novel, readers know no more about Carl than the characters in the novel do. What would Carl have to say about life on the island? Did Carl really agree to sell Kabuo the seven acres? Did Carl actually believe that Kabuo was a threat to his mother? While characters throughout the story are busy drawing clear lines around black and white, Carl, through death, will always remain a shade of gray. Ultimately, the novel itself doesn't attempt to define right or wrong either. Guterson stays in the gray, leaving the reader to guess what happens next, to define right and wrong, and to discern the meaning of and motivation behind the actions of the novel's central characters.


The War and the Trial. Both are life-defining events that unfortunately foster racism and division as well as symbolize justice and injustice. Both events take complicated issues and attempt to present themselves as simplistic either/or options: us versus them, and right versus wrong. Ironically, the government, which was so unjust to Kabuo and basically caused his family's problems, and understandably might not be trusted, is also the institution, right down to his court-appointed lawyer, that Kabuo must trust in order to be cleared of the charges against him.

During both the war and the trial, some townspeople take a stand against racism and injustice. Carl Heine, Sr. is distraught to read that the Japanese have to vacate and have been given only eight days to do so. When Zenhichi comes offering to make a payment on the land, Carl is incredulous, "'Absolutely not,' he said. 'Absolutely not, Zenhichi. We'll get your harvest in, see what comes of that July. Maybe then we can work out something.'" In spite of Etta's protests, Carl has every intention of honoring his business deal with the Miyamotos and fully intends to settle the bill after the family returns from their internment.

Ishmael's father, Arthur Chambers, also takes a stand against the injustice that the island's Japanese are facing. He uses his newspaper to show the Japanese in a positive light, telling Ishmael, "'Not every fact is just a fact. . . . It's all a kind of . . . balancing act. A juggling of pins, all kinds of pins." When Ishmael accuses his father of losing his journalistic integrity, Arthur counters with "'But which facts? . . . Which facts do we print Ishmael?'" Ironically, Ishmael must answer the same question when he discovers information that can clear Kabuo. Arthur teaches Ishmael a great lesson when he continues a loosely concealed pro-Japanese stance at considerable cost to his newspaper. Ishmael does not confront that lesson head on, though, until the trial.

During the trial, Nels Gudmundsson shows Kabuo early on that he bears no prejudice, even though he is not Kabuo's lawyer by choice. Nels arrives at Kabuo's cell armed with a chess board and symbolically shows his disinterest in race over a friendly argument about which color chess pieces to play. "'You don't prefer it?' asked Kabuo. 'You prefer white? Or black?'" Nels solves the problem by asking Kabuo to hold one of each color in his hands, choosing "'Left. . . . If we're going to leave it to chance, left is as good as right. They're both the same this way.'"

Those people who don't feel prejudice toward the Japanese hold themselves to a higher moral code than many of the other islanders. Etta remarks on Carl Sr.'s high character without realizing she's doing so: "Stood around evenings up at the pickers' cabins jawing with the Japs and taking pains with the Indians, watching the women weave sweaters and such, drawing the men out on the subject of the old days before the strawberry farms went in. Carl!" Nels alludes to his driving force when he tells Kabuo, "'There are laws. . . . They apply equally to everyone. You're entitled to a fair trial.'"

Snow. Contradictory in nature and interpretation, snow is simultaneously pure and untainted as well as cold and uncaring. It beautifies as it destroys; it covers as it cleanses. Like many of the issues and characters in the novel, complete understanding depends on the point of view from which it is perceived. This dualistic component represents the complexities of all relationships and situations.

Each individual's reaction to the snow is an insight into his or her character. Kabuo sees the snow as "infinitely beautiful" even though it's described as "furious" and "wind-whipped." Kabuo's perception is analogous to the calm exterior he shows in the courtroom and the internal fury he still harbors about his family's land and his wartime experiences. In contrast, Ishmael "hoped it would snow recklessly and bring to the island the impossible winter purity, so rare and precious, he remembered fondly from his youth." Ishmael spends much of the story hoping to recapture the freedom and certainty he felt as a teenager. Hatsue remains in the middle during the snowstorm. To her it is neither beautiful, as Ishmael suggests, nor dangerous — it simply is. Ironically, though, it is Hatsue who looks at the snow and comments, "'Everything looks so pure. . . . It's so beautiful today'" when Ishmael decides to do the ethically correct thing with the information he has about Carl's death.

The fact that the snow falls on cedar trees is important because the hollow of an old cedar tree was the site of Hatsue and Ishmael's secret trysts. As Ishmael comes to terms with his place in life and, more importantly, his place in Hatsue's life, the snow is busily concealing the entrance to the hideout they shared.

Seasons. Guterson uses seasons in the novel to show a progression from youth to maturity, from a certain innocence or naïveté to an awakening of life's realities. Just before finding Carl's body, Sheriff Art Moran sees children playing and thinks "They're innocent." At its core, this story deals with lost innocence and the attempts that various characters make to either reclaim it or understand its loss.

Most of the characters' childhood recollections have to do with summer. Ishmael and Hatsue share their first kiss while swimming. The children on San Piedro look forward to picking strawberries in the summer. They "delighted in their field toil in part because of the social life it provided, in part because it furnished the illusion that a job had been included in the summer's proceedings."

Illusion is an important word here. Guterson implies that things of summer — symbolically the things of youth — are an illusion that maturity will erase. Fujiko sums up the transition from youth to maturity when she tells her daughters, "To deny that there was this dark side to life would be like pretending that the cold of winter was somehow only a temporary illusion, a way station on the way to the higher 'reality' of long, warm, pleasant summers. But summer, it turned out, was no more real than the snow that melted in wintertime." With this statement, the reader comes to understand that maturity comes at a price.

Not insignificant, then, is the fact that when Hatsue and Kabuo make love for the first time "Outside snow had drifted against the barracks wall." Hatsue is moving from an immature, springtime sexual experience with Ishmael to a mature sexual experience with her husband in winter. Neither age nor circumstance allowed Hatsue and Ishmael to have a mature sexual relationship. When Hatsue makes love to Kabuo, sexual union is planned between them. With Ishmael a spontaneous "Let's get married" precedes an urgent desire to consummate their relationship. As Hatsue leaves their tree for the last time, she realizes "that they had been too young, that they had not seen clearly, that they had allowed the forest and the beach to sweep them up, that all of it had been delusion," and she is on her way to a mature understanding of intimate love.

Summer is a time of beauty and possibility. Hatsue was "crowned princess of the Strawberry Festival in 1941," a testament to her youthful beauty. Shortly after that, Mrs. Shigemura tells Hatsue that she "should learn to play her hair lovingly, like a stringed musical instrument." But as Hatsue grows older, she no longer wears her hair loose, preferring to wear it in a knot at her neck as her mother does. The freedom of long, flowing hair gives way to the restrictions of adulthood and the reality of Hatsue's life as her hair becomes increasingly contained.

As an adolescent in the summer of his life, Ishmael believes that "from his point of view, at fourteen years old, their love was entirely unavoidable. It had started on the day they'd clung to his glass box and kissed in the sea, and now it must go on forever. He felt certain of this." No matter how improbable the situation, youth gives Ishmael the conviction that he and Hatsue can overcome the barriers that their culture places on them. Ishmael spends much of his adult life trying to find a way to turn this belief, this desire, into reality. It is winter when he realizes that he must let Hatsue go. When Ishmael shares his information about Carl's death with the authorities, he has reached a new level of maturity. In a poignant moment, he acknowledges this shift when he meets with Hatsue and says, "When you're old and thinking back on things, I hope you'll remember me just a little."

Early in the novel, Kabuo realizes during his trial that "He had missed autumn . . . it had passed already, evaporated," and although Guterson doesn't use a great deal of autumn imagery in Snow Falling on Cedars, this statement is important. Kabuo misses autumn because he's in a state of suspension — living in jail, not yet free, not yet convicted. For Guterson, fall is the space between innocence and maturity. Everything comes into question in the autumn. Hatsue starts dating Kabuo in late summer, which is just about the time that Ishmael is going through basic training. Ishmael loses his arm in a battle on November 19, and in his agony blames it on Hatsue. In Hatsue's letter to Ishmael, she tells him, "Your heart is large and you are gentle and kind, and I know you will do great things in this world," but Ishmael counters that with the recognition that "the war, his arm, the course of things — it had all made his heart much smaller." Significantly, then, Ishmael reclaims his large heart in winter by doing great things for Hatsue and Kabuo.

Ishmael falls prey to burgeoning maturity's greatest danger — cynicism. Emotionally, Ishmael is still in that space between summer and winter when he acknowledges that "His cynicism — a veteran's cynicism — was a thing that disturbed him all the time. It seemed to him after the war that the world was thoroughly altered. It was not even a thing you could explain to anybody, why it was that everything was folly." World War II serves as that autumn space for all the characters in the story. What they do with the lessons learned here is up to them.

Kabuo's arrest occurs in the fall, which is another time of suspension for the main characters. Though Hatsue has a great deal of support from family and friends, autumn passes for her "with her life arrested, on hold." While Kabuo sits in a literal cell, the trial brings Hatsue and Ishmael to a new point. Thus, Guterson confirms that even in adulthood, people continue to reach new levels of maturity. Ishmael spends the autumn months wondering whether he can work his way back into Hatsue's life. But in the winter months of the trial, he comes to a mature decision.

Nels Gudmundsson, a man in the "winter" of his life, shows great levels of maturity. Nels is quietly and respectfully logical in the face of great prejudice and emotion when questioning witnesses. "'In your estimation, as a veteran gill-netter, as president of the San Piedro Gill-Netters Association, it isn't possible that the defendant boarded Carl Heine's boat. . . . The problem of a forced boarding precludes that — makes it impossible?'" Further, he holds each witness — including his own client — accountable for telling the truth. When Kabuo lies out of what he believes to be self-defense, he tells Nels that telling the truth can be difficult. Characteristically, Nels understands Kabuo's reluctance to trust him, but his response is, "'Just the same . . . There are the things that happened . . . and the things that did not happen. That's what we're talking about.'" The fact that Nels is 79 and a bit feeble is important. By describing Nels' disabilities, Guterson gives readers the sense that Nels has experienced a great deal in his life and that his own maturity is hard-won.

Guterson also points to the cyclical nature of seasons and of emotional growth when Hatsue comments to Kabuo, "'A big snow. Your son's first.'" And so the cycle of innocence to maturity comes full circle and begins again.

Boat Names. One of the main questions that Hatsue and other American children born to Japanese parents struggle with in this story is whether "identity was geography instead of blood — if living in a place was what really mattered." For the Caucasians on the island, the fact that they're White is what matters most. They would answer that identity is blood. By naming his boat the Susan Marie, after his wife, Carl Heine, Jr. is making a connection to people, to family, to blood. Japanese-born islanders would agree with Heine and many other Caucasians on the island. They encourage their children to marry within their culture. Under Mrs. Shigemura's tutelage, Hatsue is told "that white men carried in their hearts a secret lust for pure young Japanese girls. . . . Stay away from white men . . . marry a boy of your own kind whose heart is strong and good."

No matter how intent these parents are about instilling in their children that they're "first and foremost Japanese," their children who are American by birth and Japanese by heritage have a hard time with this concept. Although they ultimately stay within the culture of their heritage, they are constantly tempted to join the culture of their birthplace. It is no coincidence, then, that Kabuo, "precisely the boy Mrs. Shigemura had described for [Hatsue] so many years ago," owns a boat named the Islander, a name of place. Kabuo and Hatsue look forward to returning to San Piedro after the war. They look forward to returning to their place. Though enmeshed in Japanese culture, these people are still torn between heritage and geography.


Nature Images. Detailed descriptions of wildlife — plants and animals — that are native to the Northwest permeate the pages of Guterson's text. They not only provide a realistic setting but also enable the reader to enter the world of the characters.

Fishing Jargon. Being a fisherman is more than just an occupation; it is a way of life. And although gill-netting is illegal now, then it provided an identity for so many. In order to understand more fully the men and the lives they lead, it is imperative to live in their world.

Japanese Words and Phrases. In order to capture the Japanese culture, Guterson uses Japanese words and phrases throughout his text. Not all terms are fully or easily translated, though, and that raises this question: Is it possible, no matter how hard you try, to understand completely another culture? And if it is not, then are the gaps between cultures able to be crossed?


The ideas of racism, justice, and responsibility and the interplay among the three as they relate to decisions made in the lives of people pervade Snow Falling on Cedars. These issues are raised in personal relationships, international relationships, the notion of war, and the court of law. At the end of the novel, even though the trial is over and Ishmael has done the honorable thing, questions still remain. And although certain aspects of the issues are laid to rest, the major themes themselves are not laid to rest and cannot provide a sense of closure. Closure is impossible, because every individual who encounters these difficulties in life is facing a personal trial — a trial whose outcome is in his own control. Taking responsibility for one's own actions is the first step toward bridging the cultural gaps.

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