Critical Essays Narrative Techniques: Guterson's Literary Form


Rather than tell a tale by starting at the beginning and following the events in chronological order, Guterson employs a narrative style reminiscent of William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Snow Falling on Cedars combines three basic elements of a circular narrative — the use of the framing technique, the use of flashback, and the use of a limited point of view — to reveal events little by little.

The main story line is the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto. This event itself lasts only three days; however, important information, which is pertinent to the trial, occurred years, even decades, earlier. If a picture frame represented Kabuo's trial, the frame would be comprised of all the events in and out of the courtroom that take place in the present. This frame represents the basic narrative line, yet other stories are told within that main story. These stories, told within the context of the main story, fit within the main frame and serve as a small part of the larger picture. And some of these smaller stories of earlier events frame even smaller stories of even earlier events. Each story is distinct within itself while simultaneously being an integral part of a greater whole; every individual picture is a part of a bigger picture.

This framework technique provides the structure of the plot, and flashback is the technique Guterson uses to tell the stories. Characters reveal these "framed" stories through public testimony on the witness stand and/or private memories. Oftentimes, as in the case with Etta Heine, the reader is privy to a flashback memory that isn't shared with other characters.

The narrator also provides information. The narrator of Snow Falling on Cedars provides a limited third-person point of view. This perspective sometimes allows readers into the mind of a character but sometimes does not. This technique is important because it helps to build suspense and intrigue. In addition, this technique allows the story line to flow seamlessly from past to present and back again. A flashback often simultaneously serves as testimony.

Stylistically, the narrative techniques work well because Snow Falling on Cedars isn't solely a murder mystery; the book also explores the mystery of relationships and the way people interact with one another. The intricacies of a trial mirror the intricacies of a relationship. Because Guterson's narrative techniques weave two main story lines together, leading to a shared climax, Snow Falling on Cedars is a compelling read.

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