‘In a universe where decay is inevitable, suffering and death come unexpectedly, war and social divisions are human traditions, personal ethics are humankind’s saving grace.’ Discuss this thesis with particular emphasis on the decisions taken by and the behaviour and operation on the consciences of Kabuo, Hatsue and Ishmael.
The novel Snow Falling on Cedars, written by David Guterson, revolves around a racially charged court case involving an innocent Japanese man accused of the murder of a German fisherman. The author explores the human traditions of war and social division and the inevitability of decay, suffering and death, using the murder trial of Kabuo Miyamoto as a focal point. Guterson investigates the way in which personal ethics can transcend the conspiring effects of ‘fate, coincidence and accident’ through the behaviour and disposition of the three main characters of the novel, Ishmael, Hatsue and Kabuo.
Kabuo's trial is a continuation of the white community's conflict with its Japanese neighbours. Prejudice is prevalent on San Piedro Island where whites harbour resentment and hostility towards the Japanese ‘aliens’, but hypocritically profit from the Japanese-American residents’ discipline and hard work. Generated by the events of World War II, the ‘Japs’ are treated with suspicion and scorn. The jurors misinterpret Kabuo’s cold and impassive face as a sign of betrayal and defiance, while to Kabuo it expresses guilt for World War II ‘murders’. Ishmael learns to hate Hatsue after his war experience, because ‘she had the face of America’s enemy and would always have such a face’. However, the Japanese are not merely victims and out of a sense of superiority, they choose to maintain their detachment from American society. Hatsue’s influential mentor Mrs Shigemura has contempt for American culture and warns Hatsue to stay away from the ‘hakujin’. Kabuo distrusts his white neighbours because he was robbed of his family’s land and is a ‘victim of racial prejudice…in the country he fought to defend’. Hatsue understands the deeply ingrained racial and cultural divide between herself and Ishmael. In a metaphorical conversation at the beach, she declares ‘oceans don’t mix…they’re different from each other’. Prejudices in the novel are not restricted to racial discrimination, and other divisions within the community are depicted. The San Piedro fishermen mistrust Ishmael because he is an intellectual and ‘makes a living with words.’ Guterson suggests that circumstances that seem unalterable, such as prejudice or war, are the direct result of human behavior and that people can overcome them. This is illustrated when Kabuo offers to assist Carl in a dire situation despite having every reason to detest him.
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Throughout the novel, Guterson describes incidents of suffering and death that occur unexpectedly and without human control. Carl Heine dies because a freighter passes by his fishing boat when he is atop his mast, at his most vulnerable. Ishmael loses his arm to the war and cancer claims the life of Arthur Chambers. The courthouse embodies inevitable decay, which parallels with the ‘slow and deliberate geriatric,’ Nels Gudmundsson. Guterson portrays the way in which cruel and accidental incidents dominate the universe. The wild storm outside the courtroom is a symbol for the uncontrollable events that affect human lives. The characters in the novel continuously battle to exert their own will opposite such indifferent and circumstantial forces. The challenge facing society Guterson suggests, is learning to differentiate between what humans can and cannot control. This struggle includes learning to accept what cannot be changed. Ishmael must accept that his arm has been lost in the war and that Hatsue does not love him. Kabuo must ‘accept that the mountain of his violent sins was too large to climb’ and that ‘his suffering inevitably would multiply’. Hatsue realises that she will ‘never feel at home…among the hakujin.’ For Ishmael and Hatsue, the cedar tree is a refuge from the forces of prejudice and conflict that threaten to keep them apart. The tree's seclusion, however, prevents the pair from acknowledging and accepting that their relationship will not survive the pressures of the outside world. The isolated cedar tree gives Ishmael an unrealistic illusion of the world that inevitably enhances the suffering and bitterness of his later years.
Snow Falling on Cedars is primarily about the ways in which Ishmael, Kabuo and Hatsue eventually learn that personal ethics can triumph over ‘the indifferent forces that ceaselessly conspire towards injustice.’ Guterson illustrates the fact that humans can only maintain power over their own thoughts and actions. The facts of the court case are largely circumstantial and as a result of this, as a community and as individuals, the characters in Snow Falling on Cedars are forced to use reason when making decisions that affect the lives of others. The deteriorating courthouse represents humanity’s feeble but noble endeavors to judge guilt from innocence. Throughout the process of the murder trial, Ishmael is torn between bitterness and conscience, reluctant to forgive Hatsue yet unable to condemn her husband. When he finally makes the courageous decision to reveal the truth about the night Carl Heine died, Ishmael is finally able to mature into a responsible adult. This effort of good will and tolerance essentially saves Kabuo. Through the use of description and imagery, Guterson reflects on his perception of humanity. In essence, he states, humans are ‘more similar in their deepest places’ than they care to admit. Snowfall represents this, as the blanket of snow masks contrasting cultures and race.
David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars is essentially about the human condition. San Piedro Island is depicted as a microcosm of the world of humankind, reflecting on ubiquitous thoughts and feelings felt by all of humanity. The author depicts the inevitability of decay, suffering and death, and describes the everlasting traditions of war and prejudice. The thoughts and actions of Ishmael, Hatsue and Kabuo combine to illustrate that ‘accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart.’
Word Count- 993 words
Guterson, David, Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994, pp 367
Ibid., pp 107
“ ” pp 37
“ ” pp 135
“ ” pp 179
“ ” pp 75
“ ” pp 367
“ ” pp 84
“ ” pp 34
Guterson, David, Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994, pp 17
Ibid., pp 148
“ ” pp 148
“ ” pp 179
“ ” pp 368
“ ” pp 353
Guterson, David, Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994, pp 404