Critical Essays Guterson's Use of Details


Throughout Snow Falling on Cedars, as he tells the story, Guterson scatters seemingly throwaway lines throughout the text. For example, in Chapter 1, he writes, "The accused man, Kabuo, was someone he [Ishmael] knew," not providing any sense of their history. In Chapter 2, Art Moran testifies that "a tin coffee cup lay tipped on its side," though the cup is not mentioned again until 30 chapters later. These lines are important bits of information, or clues, about things to come; this literary technique, known as foreshadowing, is a subtle means of preparing readers for the direction of the narrative. Foreshadowing typically creates suspense and piques the curiosity of the reader. In Snow Falling on Cedars, foreshadowing occurs in memories, testimony, and flashbacks.

But not every bit of information foreshadows events (either past or future); some pieces of information exist to provide exqui-site imagery and descriptions of people and places. Every word serves a purpose — either advancing the plot or appealing to the senses — so every word is meticulously chosen in order to create a mood, tone, or image. Guterson's use of language is one of the major strengths of his text.

Readers recognizing the importance of small details don't receive only an added appreciation and understanding of Guterson's novel; they also realize a notion that parallels the American judicial system. A need exists for all information, or evidence, no matter how large or small, to be disclosed when trying to establish the guilt or innocence of an accused individual. The specific details often determine the outcome of both a trial and a narrative.

Small details also play an important part in relationships. Just as a mystery depends on clues in order to be solved, a trial depends on evidence in order for a jury to make a decision. Likewise, the success (or failure) of a relationship depends on both the actions and/or inaction of one or both people in that relationship. The bits of information (things that are done or not done) add up to something, the significance of which isn't usually known until time has passed. When a narrative is being told from various points of view and from various time perspectives, it's no wonder that perceptions change throughout the telling. As the evidence unfolds, all the seemingly irrelevant and minor bits of information weave together, forming a telling tapestry, and the "truth" may be greatly different from any of the individual parts.

Although foreshadowing is a literary term, using little bits of information to make larger judgments applies to all aspects of life. That is why recognizing the seemingly trivial or unimportant things plays such an important part in Snow Falling on Cedars and plays an important part in one of the themes of the novel. In Chapter 32, Ishmael refers to Hatsue as "Mrs. Miyamoto" for the first time, revealing his growth as a character. This little bit of information, although easily missed, is extremely telling, about both the nature of Ishmael as a character and Guterson as a novelist.

Guterson's incredible attention to detail also helps to give readers a sense of time in the story. The trial lasts only three days, but the memories and the situations leading up to the trial were decades in the making. Lengthy descriptions of the snow outside the courtroom give readers a better sense of what it must be like to be "exiled in the county jail for seventy-seven days" with "no window anywhere in his basement cell, no portal through which . . . light could come to him."

The lengthy description of the forest in which Hatsue and Ishmael meet allows the reader to share in their secret. Guterson acquaints readers with the forest and the hollow in the cedar tree, so that they know it as intimately as the novel's characters. The expansive description of the strawberry fields give a sense of childhood as a length of time. Finally, the amount of detail that Guterson supplies helps the reader understand on an emotional level how slowly time has passed for Ishmael since receiving Hatsue's breakup letter.

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