The Transformation of Ishmael in Snow Falling on Cedars

The Transformation of Ishmael in Snow Falling on Cedars

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The Transformation of Ishmael in Snow Falling on Cedars


What can be said about a novel of such luminance as Snow Falling on Cedars that has not already been said? Certainly it is a work of much vision and insight and speaks volumes about prejudice and race. The wordplay of Guterson creates a world of vivid reality-it surrounds the reader with sights, smells and a clearly defined sense of touch. Perhaps lost amidst the smells of the strawberry fields, the cold of the winter storm, and the deep social statements about the nature and quirkiness of prejudice is the fact that this beautifully crafted story of immense complexity is in reality a very simple story about the identity of one man. Guterson himself says, "Post-modernism is dead because it didn't address human needs. The conventional story endures because it does. I'm interested in themes that endure from generation to generation" (qtd. in Kanner). This book is a conventional story, a simple story about the internal battle of Ishmael Chambers as he struggles with himself. This is made evident in the subtle and not too subtle comparisons made between Ishmael and other characters. Taking all of this into account reveals that the true theme of the book centers on the transformation of Ishmael from weak to strong.

First, who is Ishmael Chambers? He is the son of a very well-respected and prominent citizen of San Piedro, Arthur Chambers. When Arthur dies, Ishmael takes over the job as the local news reporter. He is introduced into the story as a journalist in the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto and appears to remain aloof, a passive third person eye that would analyze the information impartially. In addition to being a reporter, Ishmael is also a war veteran with a missing limb as a souvenir to boot. The reader gets the feeling that Ishmael plays a small and minor role in the upcoming plot. This, however, is false. As the book gathers momentum, it becomes increasingly clear that Ishmael ties into the fabric of the outcome of the story-from the childhood and young adult romance between Hatsue and him, to the emotional scene where his arm is amputated, to the final climax where he discovers the evidence that can clear Kabuo's name, Ishmael is the crux on which the storyline hinges.

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And the question must be asked: what will he do? Will he do what is right, or has the war and the seeming betrayal by Hatsue changed Ishmael so much on the inside that he is no longer the good man that she believed him to be. That is the dilemma that faces the analytical reader, and that is the true theme of the book. It is the theme of man versus himself in the timeless struggle of unrequited love. Racism is certainly a theme of the book as well, but as the last page closes on the thoughts of Ishmael Chambers, the fact that he is the main character and the central theme that swirls around him dawns on the reader and it is clear that his was the true struggle.

Snow Falling on Cedars is rife with comparisons between Ishmael and other characters. Of first note are the comparisons between Ishmael and other war survivors, namely Carl Heine, Jr. and Kabuo Miyamoto. It is no accident that Ishmael loses a limb in the war but the other two do not. This is a subtle hint that he does not have the natural attributes to match the other two who are both described as physically powerful men. All three men appear changed by the war; it is obvious from the descriptions. For example, when Kabuo tells Carl to keep the battery and that Carl would do the same for him, Carl replies, "I might do the same for you . . . I have to warn you about that, chief. I'm not screwed together like I used to be" (404). Carl goes on to describe himself through the testimony of his wife, "he'd repeated it just the other day-how since the war he couldn't speak. Even his old friends were included in this, so that Carl was a lonely man who understood land and work, boat and sea, his own hands, better than his mouth and heart" (297). Kabuo himself is much changed by the war as evidenced from Hatsue's memories:

For her husband, she knew, was a mystery to her, and had been ever since he'd returned from his days as a soldier nine years before. . . . At night Kabuo was subject to disturbing dreams that sent him to the kitchen table in his slippers and bathrobe. . . .Hatsue found that she was married to a war veteran and that this was the crucial fact of her marriage; the war had elicited in him a persistent guilt that lay over his soul like a shadow (359).

As for Ishmael, his mother says to him:

I've tried to make sense of it all, believe me, I have-how it must feel to be you. But I must confess that, no matter how I try, I can't really understand you. There are other boys, after all, who went to war and came back home and pushed on with their lives. They found girls and married and had children and raised families despite whatever was behind them. But you-you went numb Ishmael. And you've stayed numb all these years (347).

The comparison lies in this quotation from Ishmael's mother. Other boys have dealt with the pain and loss and moved on, but Ishmael has not. So enamored of his sorrow is Ishmael that he goes on to have meaningless relationships with unnamed women, and he says on his own account that "he slept with them angrily and unhappily and because he was lonely and selfish" (355). That Ishmael remains unhappy and unmarried so many years after the war when others have moved on is a statement about the weakness in his character. Guterson purposefully ties these three main characters together using the war as a tool to bind them, to draw a sharp contrast between the strength of the characters of Kabuo and Carl, and the weakness in Ishmael.

In addition to the comparison between the war veterans, Guterson also makes many references and comparisons between Ishmael and his father, Arthur Chambers. Arthur Chambers was the local journalist who owned his own press and was responsible for reporting the local news without a biased eye. Arthur was a man who was very strong in his convictions as evidenced by his support of the Japanese American community during the war, even when faced with the prospect of losing business because of it. An angry reader sent a message to Arthur saying, "The Japs are the enemy. . . .Your newspaper is an insult to all white Americans who have pledged themselves to purge this menace from our midst. Please cancel my subscription as of this date and send refund immediately" (192). And so he did, sending "a full refund to each customer who canceled, and a personal note written in a cordial style" (192). He was much respected and was also a war veteran from the previous world war. Ishmael's mother says of him:
Your father fought at Belleau Wood. . . . It took him years to get over it. He had nightmares and suffered just as you do. But it didn't stop him from living . . . . He went right on with his life. He didn't let self-pity overwhelm him-he just kept on with things (348).

This is another comparison that attests to the weakness in Ishmael's character. Another character, Ed Soames, comments on Ishmael, "A strange bird. . . ."Bout half the man his father was" (310). When his father dies, Ishmael takes over the job of local reporter, but his ability to remain objective comes into question during the trial.

Finally, the conflict. Not the conflict of Kabuo and society, but the conflict of Ishmael versus himself. It is because of his past with Hatsue that Ishmael cannot be objective, and when he finally confronts her after many years have passed, he becomes belligerent, yelling obscenities at her. Finally realizing what he is doing, he whimpers to her, "I'm more than sorry. I'm miserable. Do you understand? I don't mean what I say. You can't trust me when I speak anymore" (332). And these feelings arise again as he wrestles with himself, pondering whether he should help Kabuo or not. At the same time a sinister plan hatches within him: if he lets the drama in the courtroom play out as he knew it must, and he writes the article blasting the whole process as being prejudicial from start to finish, then Hatsue will owe him a debt, perhaps a debt that he would be able to collect with her husband locked away or executed. When he discovers the documents that could exonerate Kabuo, he thinks to himself:

They were as good as lost forever, it seemed to Ishmael, and no one knew the truth of the matter: that on the night Carl Heine had drowned, stopping his watch at 1:47, a freighter plowed through Ship Channel Bank at 1:42-five minutes earlier-no doubt throwing before it a wall of water big enough to founder a small gill-netting boat and toss even a big man overboard. Or rather one person, he himself, knew this truth. That was the heart of it (337).

And the heart of it is the struggle of whether Ishmael should turn in the evidence of whether he should bury it and force Hatsue to become beholden to him. It is obvious that Ishmael teeters on the brink of good and of evil when he deceives his mother by saying, "'I have to think he's guilty,' lied Ishmael. 'The evidence is very solidly against him-the prosecutor has a good case'" (343), even though he knows for certain that Kabuo is not guilty, indeed even though he is holding the evidence that can free him. But self-doubt gnaws at him, and he reflects to himself:

It was perhaps not the manner in which his father would proceed, but so be it: he was not his father...he would write the article she wanted him to write, in order to make her beholden to him, and . . . he would speak with her as one who had taken her side and she would have no choice but to listen. . . he began to imagine it (356).

In the end, it is the ghost of his father that forces him to search deeply within himself. In his father's den, he reads the last words that Hatsue wrote him, "I wish you the very best, Ishmael. Your heart is large and you are gentle and kind"(354). Again doubt pulls him down and he thinks, "But the war, his arm, the course of things-it had all made his heart much smaller. He had not moved on at all. He had not done anything great in the world.
. . .So perhaps that was what her eyes meant now on those rare occasions when she looked at him-he'd shrunk so thoroughly in her estimation, not lived up to who he was" (442). This is the struggle of good and evil, the point on which the entire novel sways.

Ishmael finds himself at the Imada's house before he knows what he is doing, telling Hatsue and her parents the truth and revealing the evidence that can save Kabuo.
Good wins and Ishmael grows and leaves behind the sorrow that had plagued him for over ten years. In the most heartfelt moment in a book full of heartfelt moments, Hatsue says to him, "Find someone to marry. . . .Have children, Ishmael. Live" (446). She sets him free and the reader is left with the feeling that Ishmael has indeed grown, put aside the worst in himself and come out the hero of the novel. Long into the night that last command of Hatsue to Ishmael will echo into the heart, mind, and soul of the reader.

Works Cited

Guterson, David. Snow Falling on Cedars. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Kanner, Ellen. "A Wonderful Irony: The Quietest of Books Makes the Splashiest
Debut." Bookpage.com. 1996. May 2002 <http://www.bookpage.com/9601bp/fiction/snowfallingoncedars.html>.
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