SparkNotes: Snow Falling on Cedars: Themes

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Snow Falling on Cedars


by:
David Guterson

1

2

Themes

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.

The Struggle Between Free Will and Chance

Guterson uses words such as mystery, fate, accident, happenstance, and
coincidence to describe the inhuman, uncontrollable, and unknowable
forces that govern the universe. Indeed, many events in the world
of Snow Falling on Cedars simply happen, causelessly
and unpredictably. Carl Heine dies because a freighter happens to
pass by his boat at the exact time that he is atop his mast, at
his most vulnerable. Ishmael happens to survive the storming of
Betio while almost everyone else in his platoon dies. The lighthouse
radioman, who would have been able to prove that Kabuo was innocent
of murdering Carl, happens to be transferred out of San Piedro the morning
after Carl’s death.

These events, like the motions of the storm and the sea,
happen for no reason and without human control. The characters in
the novel continuously struggle to exert their own will against
such impersonal and random forces. This struggle sometimes entails learning
to accept what they cannot change: Ishmael, for instance, must accept
that his arm has been lost in the war and that Hatsue does not love
him. Sometimes, however, circumstances that appear inevitable and
unchangeable—prejudice or war, for example—are the result of human
action. Guterson suggests that people can and should act to resist
these things. Nels decries prejudice in the courtroom, and Arthur
does the same in his newspaper. Kabuo assists Carl in an emergency
despite having every reason to disregard him. The challenge facing
people, Guterson suggests, is learning to recognize the difference
between what is human and therefore changeable and what is inhuman
and therefore unchangeable. Drawing on love, compassion, courage,
reason, and forgiveness, individuals and societies can and must
decide as much of their own fate as they can.

The Cyclical Nature of Prejudice

Snow Falling on Cedars reads like a map
of prejudice, clearly showing the fault lines between groups and
individuals. Prejudice is pervasive on San Piedro; whites resent
and fear the Japanese immigrants, but reap economic profit from
the Japanese-American residents’ discipline and hard work. Envy,
mistrust, and greed run rampant as the island’s whites round up,
imprison, and exile their Japanese neighbors when the government
gives its internment order. Yet the Japanese-Americans are not simply
victims; in some ways, they choose to maintain their separateness,
partly out of a sense of superiority. Fujiko, for instance, has
contempt for whites and for American culture in general. Likewise,
Kabuo distrusts his white neighbors so much that he refuses to cooperate
with Art Moran’s investigation of Carl’s death.

Guterson implies that prejudice runs in such cycles, with
each biased action and attitude reinforcing and generating new prejudice.
Characters who are surrounded by such resentments and biases start
to internalize them, allowing them to seep into other parts of their
life. Ishmael, for instance, learns to hate the Japanese during
World War II because he hates Hatsue for having rejected him. Carl
likewise hates the Japanese because the war takes him from his beloved
farm.

Additionally, we see that such prejudices in the novel
are not limited to differences in ethnicity. The San Piedro fishermen
mistrust Ishmael because he is an intellectual and makes a living
by using words rather than his hands. Such prejudices remain buried
beneath the surface of the seemingly placid community on the island,
but they have the potential to erupt with violent consequences.
The struggle to identify these prejudices in public and in private
is a central challenge for the characters of Snow Falling
on Cedars
.

The Limits of Knowledge

Ishmael’s argument with his mother, Helen, illustrates
the limits of knowledge in the novel. While Ishmael lies and argues
that the facts show Kabuo is guilty, Helen wonders if such facts
are ever enough to justify condemning a man. Ishmael resists his
mother’s argument despite his knowledge that the case against Kabuo
is dangerously incomplete and circumstantial.

Take the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quick Quiz

1

2


Previous

Next

Motifs

More Help

  • Character List

    CHARACTERS
  • Ishmael Chambers: Character Analysis

    CHARACTERS
  • Important Quotations Explained

    MAIN IDEAS
  • Review Quiz

    FURTHER STUDY

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  • Home

  • Literature

  • Snow Falling on Cedars

  • Themes

Snow Falling on Cedars


by:
David Guterson

1

2

Themes

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.

The Struggle Between Free Will and Chance

Guterson uses words such as mystery, fate, accident, happenstance, and
coincidence to describe the inhuman, uncontrollable, and unknowable
forces that govern the universe. Indeed, many events in the world
of Snow Falling on Cedars simply happen, causelessly
and unpredictably. Carl Heine dies because a freighter happens to
pass by his boat at the exact time that he is atop his mast, at
his most vulnerable. Ishmael happens to survive the storming of
Betio while almost everyone else in his platoon dies. The lighthouse
radioman, who would have been able to prove that Kabuo was innocent
of murdering Carl, happens to be transferred out of San Piedro the morning
after Carl’s death.

These events, like the motions of the storm and the sea,
happen for no reason and without human control. The characters in
the novel continuously struggle to exert their own will against
such impersonal and random forces. This struggle sometimes entails learning
to accept what they cannot change: Ishmael, for instance, must accept
that his arm has been lost in the war and that Hatsue does not love
him. Sometimes, however, circumstances that appear inevitable and
unchangeable—prejudice or war, for example—are the result of human
action. Guterson suggests that people can and should act to resist
these things. Nels decries prejudice in the courtroom, and Arthur
does the same in his newspaper. Kabuo assists Carl in an emergency
despite having every reason to disregard him. The challenge facing
people, Guterson suggests, is learning to recognize the difference
between what is human and therefore changeable and what is inhuman
and therefore unchangeable. Drawing on love, compassion, courage,
reason, and forgiveness, individuals and societies can and must
decide as much of their own fate as they can.

The Cyclical Nature of Prejudice

Snow Falling on Cedars reads like a map
of prejudice, clearly showing the fault lines between groups and
individuals. Prejudice is pervasive on San Piedro; whites resent
and fear the Japanese immigrants, but reap economic profit from
the Japanese-American residents’ discipline and hard work. Envy,
mistrust, and greed run rampant as the island’s whites round up,
imprison, and exile their Japanese neighbors when the government
gives its internment order. Yet the Japanese-Americans are not simply
victims; in some ways, they choose to maintain their separateness,
partly out of a sense of superiority. Fujiko, for instance, has
contempt for whites and for American culture in general. Likewise,
Kabuo distrusts his white neighbors so much that he refuses to cooperate
with Art Moran’s investigation of Carl’s death.

Guterson implies that prejudice runs in such cycles, with
each biased action and attitude reinforcing and generating new prejudice.
Characters who are surrounded by such resentments and biases start
to internalize them, allowing them to seep into other parts of their
life. Ishmael, for instance, learns to hate the Japanese during
World War II because he hates Hatsue for having rejected him. Carl
likewise hates the Japanese because the war takes him from his beloved
farm.

Additionally, we see that such prejudices in the novel
are not limited to differences in ethnicity. The San Piedro fishermen
mistrust Ishmael because he is an intellectual and makes a living
by using words rather than his hands. Such prejudices remain buried
beneath the surface of the seemingly placid community on the island,
but they have the potential to erupt with violent consequences.
The struggle to identify these prejudices in public and in private
is a central challenge for the characters of Snow Falling
on Cedars
.

The Limits of Knowledge

Ishmael’s argument with his mother, Helen, illustrates
the limits of knowledge in the novel. While Ishmael lies and argues
that the facts show Kabuo is guilty, Helen wonders if such facts
are ever enough to justify condemning a man. Ishmael resists his
mother’s argument despite his knowledge that the case against Kabuo
is dangerously incomplete and circumstantial.

Take the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quick Quiz

1

2


Previous

Next

Motifs

More Help

  • Character List

    CHARACTERS
  • Ishmael Chambers: Character Analysis

    CHARACTERS
  • Important Quotations Explained

    MAIN IDEAS
  • Review Quiz

    FURTHER STUDY

From the SparkNotes Blog

Honest Names for All the Books You’ll Have to Read in Your English Class
By

Elodie

Every Book on Your English Syllabus, Summed Up in Marvel Quotes
By

Elodie

Pick a Greek God and We’ll Tell You Your Biggest Flaw
By

Elodie

7 Fictional Characters Whose Names Give Away the Story
By

Elodie

Every Harry Potter Character, Summed Up in a Single Sentence
By

Elodie and Chelsea Dagger