Study Guide

Snow Falling on Cedars Themes

  • Memory and the Past

    Ahem—excuse us as we clear our throat to sing our favorite song from Cats. Okay, back to business. You may have noticed that characters in this novel spend more time in the past than in the present day, and stuff that happened 10 years ago has a huge impact on the characters' motivations in the present.

    This tendency to let the past dictate the present, and future, isn't exactly portrayed positively in Snow Falling on Cedars. In the case of the Miyamoto trial, jury members find themselves unable to leave their memories of World War II (and the anti-Japanese prejudices they developed as a result) behind in evaluating evidence. As a result, they are inclined to convict an innocent man. So yeah, memory, you're not being helpful here.

    Somewhat similarly, the protagonist, Ishmael, can't move on with his life because he's stuck in the past, thinking about his ex-girlfriend, Hatsue. Ishmael's repeated trips down memory lane are potentially as dangerous as the jury's; in addition to their impact on him personally, they make him less inclined to bring evidence to light that would exonerate Kabuo. Luckily, Ishmael is ultimately able to do what the jury can't and move on.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Okay, so, if memory and being stuck in the past is such a bad thing in the novel's universe, do you find it interesting or ironic that the novel itself is 90 percent flashback, set in the past, and focused on historical events? Do you find these two things consistent or inconsistent? How and-or when is looking to the past useful?
    2. In terms of the memories that are holding Ishmael back, how much do you think is about Hatsue? How much is about the war? Does the mix matter?
    3. Do you think the novel presents memories and the trauma of war as equal to, or the same as, the trauma of a botched love affair? If so, what do you think of that choice?

    Chew on This

    The novel presents two very different ways of focusing on memory and the past. The first, which involves living in the past and refusing to see or accept changes in circumstances, is presented as harmful and even dangerous. The second entails learning from the past in order to make the present better. The latter is what the novel seems to be trying to do.

    Relax, gang. Memory is only dangerous when it becomes nostalgia.

  • Imprisonment

    Kabuo Miyamoto spends a good chunk of Snow Falling on Cedars imprisoned; in the present-day timeline, he's in jail, and in the flashbacks, he's a prisoner in Manzanar—the Japanese internment camp, where Hatsue and her family are also forced to go. So, yeah, literal prisons are a huge part of the novel. In addition, we often encounter characters who are trapped by their feelings or their inability to let go of the past. Ishmael, for example, springs to mind, since he seems to be completely at the mercy of his feelings for Hatsue for… oh, most of the novel.

    Questions About Imprisonment

    1. What do you make of the fact that Hatsue and Kabuo felt that they had no other choice but to get married? Is this feeling about destiny or about entrapment? Are the two linked in the novel—is destiny associated with feelings of being enclosed or stunted?
    2. Which does the novel present as worse—literal prisons or the more metaphorical prisons that people create for themselves with their own minds and hearts?
    3. What is going on when Kabuo feels guilty about catching fish on the evening he meets up with Carl? (It's kind of an odd thing for a fisherman to feel, no?)

    Chew on This

    The novel presents several instances of literal imprisonment, as well as examples of psychological entrapment, to draw an analogy between the two, showing that psychological prisons can be just as constraining as literal ones.

    The novel contrasts actual imprisonment with the feelings and memories that hobble or "trap" certain characters (e.g., Ishmael or Kabuo), suggesting that such memories are, unlike literal imprisonment, within individual control.

  • Truth

    Although some people believe that the truth will set you free, it's a complicated business in Snow Falling on Cedars. Characters like Kabuo Miyamoto and Arthur Chambers seem to think there's more to the truth than just the facts. Why? Well, facts can be arranged and presented in different ways or interpreted as evidence for very different conclusions or "truths," depending on the audience listening to them. The jury provides us with a great example; that bunch all hears the same set of facts, but they don't all come to the same conclusion—in large part because their perceptions are deeply colored by prejudice.

    Questions About Truth

    1. How does the novel distinguish "facts" from the "truth"? How are they potentially different entities? Why does it matter?
    2. Does the novel suggest that there is such a thing as objective truth? If so, how (and where) might it be found?
    3. How do Arthur Chambers and Ishmael's view of facts and the truth differ, and what do those differences say about each man's character?

    Chew on This

    In "Snow Falling on Cedars," there is always more to the truth than raw facts; an understanding of the individual emotions or social and interpersonal dynamics at play is absolutely crucial to understanding the spirit of an act or event, is the key to understanding the full truth behind it.

    The novel suggests that facts are the only things you need to determine the "truth" behind an event or action; relying on anything else (like emotion) just opens you up to bias and prejudice.

  • Prejudice

    Snow Falling on Cedars shows how powerful prejudices and biases can be. The jury comes this close to convicting Kabuo Miyamoto for the murder of Carl Heine, despite the fact there was enough room for reasonable doubt to house an elephant. Guterson sets us up from the beginning to view San Piedro as a kind of insular place that's closed off from the wider world (and likes it that way), and you soon realize that the legacy of World War II + those isolationist tendencies create conditions ripe for bias and prejudice.

    Questions About Prejudice

    1. When Hatsue is young, Mrs. Shigemura warns her to avoid white men because they will exoticize her and turn her into a fantasy for their own purposes. Do you think Ishmael avoids that trap? Why or why not?
    2. Does the novel itself go beyond stereotyping its Japanese characters and portraying them as hollow or inscrutable?
    3. Does the novel suggest that most of the anti-Japanese sentiment on San Piedro stems from the war, or does it run deeper than that? How do we know?

    Chew on This

    By relegating its Japanese characters to the background and leaving massive holes in its portrayal of Hatsue's emotions and motivations, Snow Falling on Cedars uncritically replicates some of the stereotypes and "exoticizing" that it critiques.

    In its plot structure, Snow Falling on Cedars purposely replicates some of the stereotypes and "exoticizing" tendencies that it criticizes among the characters, in order to draw attention to these stereotypes.

  • Warfare

    In Snow Falling on Cedars, the people of San Piedro—veterans and non-veterans alike—are haunted by memories of World War II. Two of the main characters, Ishmael and Kabuo, fought in the war and have been irrevocably changed by the experience. In addition to exposing Ishmael to unspeakable horrors, the war caused his breakup with Hatsue, which has been huge in preventing him from moving on with his life. Kabuo, for his part, feels like there's a part of himself that's always kind of separate and backward-looking after his participation in the war. Even though it's been a decade since the war ended, it's still very much a presence for this novel's characters.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. If Hatsue had just broken up with Ishmael without the war intervening, would he be just as messed up as he is now? Put differently, how much of his problem is the war, and how much is the fact that the war caused him to break up with his high school sweetheart?
    2. Why does the novel set up comparisons between the traumas of wartime and relationship heartbreak? Do you find the analogy interesting or convincing? Why or why not?
    3. Do characters like Kabuo have any hope of emerging from the isolation and despair that their war memories have caused them to suffer? Is there any reason to believe they will be able to move on?

    Chew on This

    The novel leaves little room for hope that characters will be able to recover from the impact of the war on their lives; its traumas are portrayed as so massive as to be insurmountable—bummer.

    Although the novel's characters are plagued (and sometimes paralyzed) by bad memories, Ishmael's ability to let go of the past and help Kabuo out of prison brings the novel to a close on a hopeful note. It appears that maybe moving on is possible, if you can just get your heart to learn how to act right. Right?

  • Death

    Snow Falling on Cedars is kind of a murder mystery (or at least starts out that way), so you probably guessed that death was going to be a theme. Beyond the Carl Heine murder trial, the characters are totally preoccupied with death because they've still got World War II (in which many of them had fought) on the brain. Kabuo views Carl's death and his murder trial as somehow karmically linked to the deaths he caused as a soldier; in his view, he can now be punished for those earlier "murders."

    War memories might have something to do with the way San Piedro's residents react to Carl Heine's death; they seem remarkably disinclined to just see it as a freak accident, instead scrambling to assign motive and meaning to it. Of course, prejudice has a lot to do with what goes down in the investigation and arrest of Kabuo Miyamoto, but it also seems like the war might have also just made them a bit more eager (or even desperate) to find meaning in death and randomness.

    Questions About Death

    1. How do the characters' memories of World War II affect or contribute to the islanders' eagerness to see Carl's death as a murder, rather than an accident? Is it just prejudice, pure and simple, or is there something else going on here?
    2. How have Ishmael's "beyond the pale" experiences with death shaped his worldview?
    3. Kabuo has also been irrevocably changed by the war and feels like a murderer because he killed in combat. Do you think he's worked through some of these feelings of guilt by the end of the novel?

    Chew on This

    Compared to its treatment of Ishmael's thoughts and feelings about the war, the novel's characterization of Kabuo's feelings on that front is woefully lacking and superficial. Though we see Ishmael make progress in working through his demons and guilt, Kabuo's are raised only to be abandoned. This is one huge example of how the novel gives more nuance and depth to its non-Japanese characters.

    The hollowness and lack of nuance in the novel's characterization of Kabuo directly mirrors the emptiness he feels inside in the wake of the war, which he is ultimately never able to shake.

  • Love

    You'd think that with war, murder, and snowstorms, the characters in Snow Falling on Cedars wouldn't have time to get all moony about each other, but you would be so wrong. Love and marriage are pretty central topics in the novel. In fact, even though he's been through a war and lost an arm, Ishmael still acts like the loss of his high school girlfriend is the most traumatic thing that has ever happened to him.

    He's so fixated on Hatsue and getting her back in his life that he initially withholds crucial evidence that could help exonerate Kabuo, and he spends a lot of the trial (you know, the one he's supposed to be reporting on) daydreaming about her. He eventually gets it together and manages to hand in the evidence that helps Kabuo get off, an act that signals he may be getting his life together, but Ishmael has to get his heart under control in order for that justice to come to pass.

    Questions About Love

    1. Within the novel's universe, is love a force for good, a force for evil, or just not powerful at all? How do we know?
    2. At the end of the novel, Ishmael says that the human heart is the only place where accident doesn't rule the roost. What does he mean by that? And how does that statement fit into the novel's larger exploration of fate vs. free will?
    3. Was Hatsue ever in love with Ishmael, or did she just talk herself out of her feelings on the basis of political and social pressures?
    4. Was Ishmael truly in love with Hatsue? He never really seemed to understand what she was thinking, so how could he have been in love with her? What parts of the book give you your ideas?

    Chew on This

    Ishmael's consistent failure to perceive or understand Hatsue's feelings and motivations undermines his claims to having loved her. He experienced obsession, not love. (Get with it, Ish.)

    The marriages and relationships portrayed in the novel are forged or fueled by a wide variety of different circumstances (convenience, arranged marriage, sex, etc.) that are distinct from love. With the possible exception of Arthur and Helen Chambers, not one of the relationships in the novel seems based purely on affection or love.

  • Fate and Free Will

    Many of the characters in Snow Falling on Cedars seem to feel tangled up in fate's fishing net, unable to move forward or exercise control over what is happening to them. Take, for example, Kabuo Miyamoto, who feels that he's experiencing a truly impressive run of bad luck and prejudice as part of some karmic retribution for killing other people in combat.

    Meanwhile, for most of the novel, Ishmael feels completely at the mercy of his feelings for Hatsue and brutalized by her decision to cut him out of his life. His paralysis almost has devastating results; he's got his head so far in the clouds, or back in the past, that he considers withholding evidence that would exonerate Kabuo. The good news is that he gets it together and decides to put his heart and free will to better use, using it in the service of justice instead of mooning over his married ex-lover.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. What do you make of the fact that so many of the characters (Kabuo and Ishmael in particular) start out feeling so powerless? How do those feelings evolve or change throughout the novel? How does their paralysis affect your view of these characters?
    2. How is the notion of destiny presented in the novel? Is it affirmed as a "real thing," or does it seem like an excuse for characters not to take responsibility for their actions? Or somewhere in between? What parts support your choice?
    3. The novel makes a big deal out of accidents. How do those fit into the novel's larger concern with destiny vs. free will?

    Chew on This

    In this book, destiny is ultimately rejected as a foolish (and maybe even dangerous) concept. While there are certainly things that remain hopelessly out of the characters' control, 90 percent are flukes or accidents rather than "destined" or ordained events. The conflict that structures life, Ishmael suggests at the end of the novel, is between free will and accident (with destiny nowhere to be found).

    The novel leaves the door open for interpreting events (for example, the bizarre series of misfortunes and bad luck that put Kabuo Miyamoto on trial) as the work of—wait for it—destiny.