Critical Essays Role of Gender in Snow Falling on Cedars


Gender roles are clearly defined for the characters in Snow Falling on Cedars. Men are the caretakers and providers, but women are responsible for maintaining the familial and social structure. Gender roles in the story are often most clearly defined by the relationships that the characters have with their parents and spouses.

Decision/Compliance. Women in both cultures have very little say in the decisions their spouses make concerning their families. Etta doesn't want to sell the land to the Miyamotos primarily because they are Japanese, but also because she believes the land will be worth more later. In exasperation, she tells Carl, "'You're the man of the house, you wear the pants, go ahead and sell our property to a Jap and see what comes of it.'" And he does. And indeed, the land is worth more when she sells to Ole Jurgensen a few years later. Still, even after Carl, Sr.'s death, Etta has to act quickly on her decision to sell the land: "Carl junior was away at the war, and Etta took advantage of this circumstance to sell the farm to Ole Jurgensen." In today's society, readers may find it odd that a mother would be beholden to her son, but in 1940s America, this response was typical.

Like her mother-in-law, Susan Marie Heine doesn't want to live on a strawberry farm. Although "she knew how Carl felt about the old place at Island Center and his passion for growing strawberries . . . she didn't want to leave the house on Mill Run Road." And yet the reader clearly understands that the fact that Susan Marie doesn't want to move has no bearing on Carl's ultimate decision to give earnest money to Ole Jurgensen. And when Susan Marie ponders growing older with Carl, "She didn't even want to think about that or to mull how one day they might have nothing except his silence and his obsession with whatever he was working on — his boat, their house, his gardens." Susan Marie is happy in her marriage and she loves her husband, but she has little say in the paths their lives together take.

Similar relationships exist in the island's Japanese marriages. Kabuo enlisted in the service without consulting Hatsue, and "He remembered the expression on Hatsue's face when he told her he had enlisted." She felt very strongly that he shouldn't enlist, but he insisted, "There was this matter of honor . . . and he had no choice but to accept the duty the war imposed on him. . . . love went deep and meant life itself, but honor could not be turned from." Kabuo's wartime experiences fundamentally changed who he is, and Hatsue had no say in his decision to go to war — a decision that altered the course of her life as well.

Aftermath of War. No San Piedro man wants to talk about his war experiences. Women on the island are left guessing about how men feel. Women find this reluctance to speak both irritating and intriguing. Susan Marie Heine remembers her attraction to Carl. His was an "island boy's face and at the same time mysterious. He'd been to the war after all." Susan finds this mystery extremely appealing, but later comes to the realization that "their sex life had been at the heart of their marriage. It had permeated everything else between them." After marriage, children, and building a life together, Carl remains an enigma to his own wife.

Hatsue's fear when Kabuo enlists in the service is not the separation but the idea that he may come back a different person. He only tells her that he has no choice. Hatsue holds her family together after their return to San Piedro, but during the trial, she accepts that "her husband . . . was a mystery to her, and had been ever since he'd returned from his days as a soldier . . . she was married to a war veteran and that this was the crucial fact of her marriage; the war had elicited in him a persistent guilt that lay over his soul like a shadow."

Late in the course of the trial, Ishmael visits his mother, Helen. They have a detailed conversation about God and other things philosophical. Finally, reaching out, Ishmael asks his mother what he should do. Her answer, "'I can't tell you what to do Ishmael. I've tried to understand what it's been like for you . . . but I must confess that, no matter how hard I try, I can't really understand you. There are other boys, after all, who went to war and came back home and pushed on with their lives . . . despite whatever was behind them.'" Painful as it is for Helen to admit, her only child has become a complete mystery to her since returning from the war. Readers may wonder whether the war or the end of his romantic relationship with Hatsue changed Ishmael, but the fact remains that on a very deep level, his mother can no longer reach him.

Ultimately, the war changes the relationship between the sexes in the novel. In spite of being somewhat limited in the scope of things they can do, women appear in many ways to be stronger than their male counterparts. The men who served in the war come home broken in some way: Carl Jr. is somber and quiet, Kabuo is angry and in jail, and Ishmael is bitter and cynical. The men's battle experiences wrought a drastic change in their personalities. Ishmael's visible loss — his arm — is an allegory for the emotional stump all the island's war veterans carry with them.

In Snow Falling on Cedars, men often leave women behind — although not necessarily by choice. Hisao leaves Fujiko when he is sent to an internment camp ahead of his family; Kabuo leaves Hatsue when he enlists in the service; and, Carl Heine, Sr., Carl Heine, Jr., and Arthur Chambers leave their wives in death. Ironic then, is the fact that Hatsue leaves Ishmael, first by being sent away and then by sending him away with her "Dear John" letter.

Women survive capably without their spouses. Etta Heine is able to live independently, as is Helen Chambers. In fact, "Carl had . . . built a big frame house just west of Amity Harbor, including an apartment for his mother. . . . But — out of pride, word had it — Etta would not move in with him." Hatsue has support from her "sisters, cousins, and aunts who called mornings and asked her to come for lunch" during Kabuo's incarceration and is able to manage the household without Kabuo's presence. During a brief visit, Kabuo reminds Hatsue to check their root cellar. She tells him, "'I've been checking. . . . Everything's fine.'" The only man whose wife has preceded him in death is Nels Gudmundsson, Kabuo's attorney, who is "seventy-nine and trapped inside a decaying body." He does not appear to be faring as well as the women who have lost their men in some way. Nels and his wife "had not gotten along particularly well, but nevertheless he missed her." Nels' "hope of rediscovering that lost part of himself he deeply, achingly missed" stands as another symbol for the islanders who lost a part of themselves in battle. San Piedro's men have seen too much, and Nels' eyes — one blind and useless, the other "preternaturally observant" — provide an allegory for that.

Emotion versus Reason. Throughout the novel, highly emotional circumstances spur male characters to action, while the affected females rely on reason.

In their early moments digging clams together, Ishmael uses the ocean as an analogy for how people are ultimately all the same. Practical at a young age, Hatsue replies, "'Oceans don't mix. . . . They're different temperatures. They have different amounts of salt. . . . They're different from each other.'" When Ishmael presses her to explain further, she simply says, "'They just are. . . . Just because.'" As a young adolescent, Hatsue has a better understanding of the way the world works and hints that she understands the problems that will follow her relationship with Ishmael. Ishmael, on the other hand, believes that he can alter the course of the world. He wants to take action.

When the United States goes to war with Japan, Ishmael's first thought is that after the war he and Hatsue will elope to Seattle, where a mixed marriage is more likely to be accepted. He dramatically professes his love for Hatsue and speaks of his grandiose plans for them. As much as Hatsue would like to wrap herself in the warmth of this emotional outpouring, she still says, "'I'm trying to be realistic about this. It isn't that simple, is what I'm saying. There are all these other things.'"

When his family's land is sold to Ole Jurgensen, Kabuo returns to San Piedro angry. He carries that anger with him for nine years. Not having land to farm makes him feel that he is somehow failing his family, and he tries to compensate for that by working extra hard at being a successful fisherman. His emotions over the lost land and his expectations of himself drive him. Hatsue, though, learns to be satisfied with what she has. Although not the life she had in mind when she and Kabuo married, "this house and this life were what she had, and there was no point in perpetually grasping for something other." Hatsue can be content with the life they have because reason leads her to understanding.

Undoubtedly, the main factor behind Etta's resistance to sell their land to the Miyamotos was the fact that the buyers were Japanese. However, readers see Carl Sr. driven by emotion in his decision, which is evident when he says, "'Sure be nice to have the money, though, wouldn't it?'" Etta is more forward thinking and realizes that the payments will be too small to net them any immediate gain: "'He's going to pay up two bits at a time, and you're going to carry it for pocket change to town. . . . Your seven acres is going to be swallowed up by the dime store in Amity Harbor.'" She also realizes that the land will be worth more in time. So, in spite of her prejudice, readers must admit that she has some sound, reasonable concerns about the land sale.

Late in the story, Ishmael has a conversation about God with his mother. Ishmael doubts God's existence, while Helen explains that belief itself is a leap of faith, a feeling people get that brings a certain understanding. Ishmael responds by saying, "'I don't feel what God is. . . . I don't feel anything either way. No feeling about it comes to me. . . . I can't make a feeling like that up, can I?'" Ishmael fancies himself based in reason during this conversation, but he fails to realize that cynicism is often emotional. His mother is free of cynicism in spite of the hardships she's endured and thus is more open to reasonable possibilities.

Personal Freedom. Women experience personal freedom very differently in the story than men do. Hatsue's parents keep close tabs on her and are strict with her. Though she routinely steals away to meet Ishmael, in a conversation with her mother, "Hatsue knew then that her pretense had failed her. . . . Now her mother seemed to know the truth, or to have some inkling of it." Hatsue exists in a world of constricted freedom. Yet, Ishmael's parents never question where he spends his afternoons or with whom. Helen seems to have no knowledge of any sort of relationship between her son and a Japanese girl, while Fujiko is well aware of the influence the hakujin have on her eldest daughter. Would the situation have been different if Hatsue was a Japanese boy and Ishmael a white girl? Would Ishmael's parents have kept a closer watch? Would Hatsue's parents have been so reticent about the relationship? Readers can only guess.

Pretty women have more leeway within a world that doesn't offer them a great deal of personal freedom. When Susan Marie reflects on meeting her husband, she fully recognizes that "She'd met Carl Heine because she'd wanted to meet him. On San Piedro a woman with her looks could do such a thing if she did it with proper innocence." Women in this community are held to certain standards, certain ideals of womanhood. If they meet them, they can move more freely than those who rebel.

Etta Heine and Helen Chambers have a unique way of gaining freedom for themselves after their respective husbands die. Etta sells the strawberry farm she never liked and moves into a one-bedroom apartment in town. She arranges her finances so that she has "enough money to get by on, if she was mindful of her pennies. Fortunately, this mindfulness accorded with her nature." Helen refuses to leave her home during the snowstorm, even though going into town would probably be safer for her. Out of concern, Ishmael goes to stay with Helen, although he recognizes that "His mother, at fifty-six, was the sort of country widow who lives alone quite capably." When he arrives, Helen has already taken care of the chores and has a pot of soup cooking on the stove.

Parenthood. Fathers appear to be less involved in child-rearing than mothers in the story. The most important exchanges between Fujiko and Hatsue occur when Hisao isn't with them. Fujiko effectively ends Hatsue's relationship with Ishmael when she discovers his letter to her daughter. Though Hatsue insists that she had decided not to write back, the reader knows that more likely her resolve would have melted. When Hatsue apologizes for her deception, her mother says, "'Deceiving me . . . is only half of it, daughter. You have deceived yourself, too.'" Importantly, Fujiko speaks these words in Japanese, which is a subtle way of reminding Hatsue that she is a Japanese woman, separate from the hakujin.

Etta Heine plays a major role in her son's life as well. Though he has many of his father's ways, the war sways him toward many of Etta's prejudices — prejudices she uses to her advantage. She testifies that Carl "'Said that if Kabuo Miyamoto was giving me dirty looks he'd keep an eye on him.'" Her lessons of exclusion stay with Carl into his adult life. Readers can only wonder what influence she had on her other three children — whose names aren't provided, which is significant given Guterson's level of detail. The three of them left San Piedro. "Only the second — Carl junior — returned."

Ishmael's father teaches his son the journalism business and impresses his son with his nonprejudiced standards. Ishmael learns his craft from his father. But Ishmael's mother, Helen Chambers, teaches him about survival, about bearing great loss. Ishmael visits his mother during the snowstorm and realizes, "His mother had gone cold when Arthur died; her grief for him was fixed. But this had not stopped her from taking pleasure in life." Helen uses Ishmael's close relationship with Arthur to help her son deal with his pain. She reminds him that Arthur served in World War I and that he had a hard time dealing with the aftermath of that war, but "'He went right on with his life. He didn't let self-pity overwhelm him — he just kept on with things.'" While Fujiko teaches her children how to be Japanese in a white world, Helen teaches Ishmael how to live with himself.

Curiously, little mention is made of Kabuo's mother. His important life lessons come from his father, who informs him of his samurai heritage and teaches him kendo. Zenhichi teaches Kabuo to keep his anger in check by saying, "'My grandfather was an expert swordsman . . . but his anger overwhelmed him in the end.'" Like Fujiko with Hatsue, Zenhichi speaks in Japanese as he teaches his son. During his trial, Kabuo reflects on the anger he harbored during the war, thinking that "Perhaps it was now his fate to pay for the lives he had taken in anger." Readers are left to ponder what feminine influence Kabuo had in his life and what difference it might have made.

Now mothers themselves, Hatsue Miyamoto and Susan Marie Heine are raising the next generation of island children. Readers are left wondering whether Hatsue will be as insistent as her mother was that her children remain tied to Japanese culture. Will Susan Marie continue to perpetuate the prejudice in her children that Etta Heine did in Carl Jr.?

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