Snow Falling on Cedars Themes

Themes

Guterson reminds us we cannot judge others by their facial expression or by their body language. We can only judge others only by seeing deeply into their hearts, seeing the coldness or warmth of their heart. For eighteen-year-old Ishmael, his childhood sweetheart, Hatsue, has her moods, "times when she went cold and silent and he felt her distance from him so completely that it seemed impossible to reach her. Even when he held her it seemed to him there was a place in her heart he couldn't get to." She denies that her reticence means she is withholding her love. She had been carefully trained by her upbringing, she said, to avoid effusive displays of feeling, but this didn't mean her heart was shallow. Her silence, she said, would express something if he would learn to listen to it.

For eighteen-year-old Hatsue, "what was love if it wasn't the instinct she felt to be on the moss inside the cedar tree with this boy she had always known? He was the boy of this place, of these woods, these beaches, the boy who smelled like this forest. If identity was geography instead of blood—if living in this place was what really mattered—then Ishmael was part of her, inside of her, as much as anything Japanese." She comes to realize that, for her and Ishmael, "(W]e're trapped inside this tree." A victim of racial prejudice, Hatsue has learned from high school on that "the truth was a burden to carry in silence." Like everyone on the island, she too has learned to "persist in the pretense."

Silence is a part of her; it lives in the silence of her mind. She is a master of the art of false preoccupation. She learns to conceal too much of herself. All this training will backfire on her; "Ishmael, at school, feigned detachment in her presence and ignored her in the casual way she gradually taught him to use."

We cannot even judge ourselves with any accuracy. "Kabuo sat in his prison cell now and examined his reflection carefully. It was not a thing he had control over. His face had been molded by his experiences as a soldier, and he appeared to the world seized up inside precisely because this was how he felt. . . What could he say to people on San Piedro to explain the coldness he projected?" The mask he has chosen to wear—"the face he had worn since the war had caused him to look inward— could convict him of first degree murder, which means the death penalty can be invoked. To Hatsue Imada Miyotomoto (and therefore to Guterson,) the question that worried her most was determining for herself her motive.

Guterson is fascinated by honor. There is the code of honor among fisherman, for instance. "You keep to yourself and I'll keep to myself," one...

(The entire section is 1097 words.)

Snow Falling on Cedars Themes

Interracial Love
The love affair between Ishmael and Hatsue grew out of innocence and familiarity because they had known each other since they were very young. In fact, their first kiss was when they were ten years old. Romance bloomed when they were teenagers. They met secretly in a large hollow cedar tree where they talked and ventured slowly into a physical relationship. Because of the community (and larger society) in which they lived, they knew they must keep their relationship secret from everyone else, including their families. At school, they barely acknowledged each other. When Hatsue was sent to Manzanar, Ishmael devised a plan so that they could write to each other, but it required using false names and ruses. Because of the limits on their relationship, they never experienced the fullness of being young and in love.

Both Ishmael and Hatsue felt badly for keeping such a secret from their families, but Hatsue is bothered by this secret more than is Ishmael. She feels a deep sense of trust and loyalty to her family, so to hide her romance from them is distressing. Her choice to continue the relationship was selfish because she was involved in something she knew her parents would forbid her to see. Ishmael did not fully understand the cultural influences on Hatsue or how they affected her emotional unavailability to him, and so he never really grasped why she remained somewhat distant. He believed they could run away together and everything would be fine, while Hatsue knew that she could never leave her family responsibilities. Ishmael was a young dreamer, as the narrator explains in chapter twelve:

Sometimes at night he would squeeze his eyes shut and imagine how it might be to marry her. It did not seem so farfetched to him that they might move to some other place in the world where this would be possible. He liked to think about being with Hatsue in some place like Switzerland or Italy or France. He gave his whole soul to love; he allowed himself to believe that his feelings for Hatsue had been somehow preordained. He had been meant to meet her on the beach as a child and then to pass his life with her.

Where Ishmael was a romantic, however, Hatsue was bound to the traditions of her culture. Not only did Ishmael and Hatsue face external social barriers to their romance, they also faced fundamental internalized cultural barriers that they were too young to handle.

Guilt
The theme of guilt runs throughout the novel, touching individual characters at various levels. Kabuo is on trial in court, the forum of...

(The entire section is 1082 words.)