Snow Falling on Cedars | Study Guide

David Guterson

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Snow Falling on Cedars | Themes


Damage Done by War

Although the war was 10 years earlier, it remains a palpable presence in the book and has damaged the characters in many ways. By any honest reckoning, the internment stole property, wealth, and dignity from the Japanese American islanders; Kabuo's family lost the land they worked so hard to obtain. Meanwhile, the war took a significant toll on the physical, emotional, and psychological well-being of the veterans of the war and their families back home.

Ishmael was physically marred by the war: he lost his arm. The physical loss doesn't seem to bother him as much as the emotional and psychological trauma. Other than an occasional comment about the difficulties of steering a car or putting on chains, Ishmael mostly thinks of his arm when he sees other people react to it. The combination of the war and the loss of Hatsue's love is too much for Ishmael; his mother says he "went numb." The past isn't dead to Ishmael. In Chapter 30 he thinks, "Ten years was not really such a long time at all," because he cannot let go.

The other veterans experience their damage differently. Kabuo and Carl both retreat into themselves, closing themselves off from their wives and families. In Chapter 25 Hatsue thinks Kabuo "was a mystery to her ... ever since he'd returned from his days as a soldier." Carl's wife, Susan, thinks of his "moments" when he couldn't—or wouldn't—find the words to share his thoughts and feelings with others. In Chapter 20 Susan remembers Carl's reaction when their son got hurt: "Carl looked at the wound, tenderly ... no longer a war veteran." The veterans are hardened, cold, distant. They know what horrible things people can do. Kabuo "saw only darkness after the war," except in his wife, his children, and in the smell of strawberries and his dreams to own his own farmland and grow them.

The Unknowable Human Heart

At the end of the book, Ishmael thinks: "The heart of any other, because it had a will, would remain forever mysterious." Many characters long to know what is in someone else's heart. When Hatsue and Ishmael are in love, Ishmael sometimes was aware of "a place in her heart he couldn't get to." He is hurt by this separateness, though Hatsue explains it is part of how she was raised.

After the war, many people wonder about the hearts of the returning veterans. Susan Heine wonders about Carl, and Hatsue worries about Kabuo. Ishmael's mother, Helen Chambers, certainly worries over her son as well. How can they bring their loved ones home emotionally?

Japanese culture places great value on being polite and dramatic displays of emotion are viewed as rude. In addition, Buddhist teaching encourages people to be calm. This cultural training leads some characters, particularly Hatsue and Kabuo, to appear unusually calm and potentially mysterious to white islanders. In their case, however, the "unknowable" human heart is perceived as a threat by the islanders. People view Kabuo as a potential killer because they cannot read his emotions. These barriers, however, do not prevent certain islanders from feeling empathy for Kabuo and Hatsue, and ultimately, preventing Kabuo from being wrongly sentenced for first-degree murder.

Being True to Yourself

An important part of Buddhist religious practice is to know your mind and the many ways it creates a "self." Examining this "self" is central to the practice. In Western culture, Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet the famous line: "To thine own self be true." These goals—to know yourself and be true to yourself—come up repeatedly in this novel.

When people are troubled, they tend to lose touch with themselves. In Chapter 14 Fujiko Imada, Hatsue's mother, says: "These are difficult times ... Nobody knows who they are now," after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hatsue argues she does know who she is, but even as she says the words, she knows they are not true. She worries she might never know herself if she stays with Ishmael. She comes to realize she would be "unwhole" in a relationship with him because she would lose the Japanese part of herself.

After the war, the veterans all struggle with their identities and how to emotionally proceed with their lives. They want to re-create parts of their childhood when they felt safe and confident. Kabuo wants his family's land back. Carl tries to re-create the home and farm he grew up in. He, too, wants his family's old farmland. Carl and Kabuo both fish to earn money, but neither is a natural fisherman. In Chapter 25 Hatsue thinks of her husband: "He was not really born to fish ... the sea, in the end, made no sense to him." In Chapter 20 Susan remembers her belief the farm would help Carl "grow sound" again. Ishmael feels that if he could only hold Hatsue once more, he could get his life back on track. He risks her husband's freedom because he can't let go. He is only able to move on when he accepts the truth that she could never love him again but does truly respect and admire him.

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