Snow Falling on Cedars, Impact of War
David Guterson, in his novel entitled Snow Falling on Cedars, clearly illustrates the harsh and brutal impact of war on many of the central characters in the plot. The novel is set in 1954, on the fictitious Island of San Piedro and follows the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto (a Japanese-American man) accused of the murder of Carl Heine. War is a prominent theme in the text and the effects it has on individuals are vividly detailed by Guterson.
Ishmael Chambers, Kabuo Miyamoto and Hatsue Miyamoto are all victims of wartime experience and are forced to battle both external and internal conflicts. In the aftermath of World War Two, these characters are left with underlying prejudices, pain, guilt, bitterness, doubt and altered views and perception of the society in which they live. The protagonist in the novel, Ishmael Chambers becomes an emotionally disconnected shell of his former being, due to his experiences at war.
Ishmael Chambers, is left deeply wounded both physically and emotionally due to his wartime experience. Hatsue describes Ishmael in his youth as having “a heart that is large” and being both “gentle and kind”. However, in the aftermath of war, he is transformed by his devastating experience, “the war his arm, the course of things, it had all made his heart much smaller”. As a 31 year old journalist, reporting on the trial of Kabuo, Ishmael is described as a cynical, bitter and lonely member of the community, “a strange bird to others, someone you cannot speak to”.
However it becomes evident that Ishmael is a victim of war and has been drastically impacted on by his personal experiences, “…there was nevertheless this matter of the war – this matter of the arm he lost… he had a chip on his shoulder… It seemed to him that after the war, the world was thoroughly altered”. Guterson then vividly details Ishmael’s traumatic experience at war, “He had seen insides of jaggedly ripped-open people… Ishmael watched them with interest for a while, men spilling out and falling to the sand – some dead, some wounded, some screaming as they ran”.
The use of this descriptive imagery which encompasses adjectives such as jagged and ripped open, emphasizes the shocking brutality of the war and alerts the reader to the kind of impact this would have on Ishmael. The most significant effect that the war had on Ishmael was the coldness that overwhelmed him, “And he felt himself growing cold now and the depth of his coldness was not a surprise…It attached itself and then burrowed inside him… then coldness settled in him permanently”.
A metaphor is used in this passage to stimulate the readers imagery of a coldess embeddeing itself within Ishmael and also serves to emphasize the depth of his pain as a result of war. A similar sense of coldness is also evident in Kabuo as a result of the war. Kabuo Miyamoto also experiences hardships due to his time at war. In the courtroom, accused of the murder of Carl Heine, Kabuo appears as somewhat of an enigmatic character. He is depicted as a man showing no emotions, “not even a flicker of the eyes” as he sits proudly upright and rigid.
Guterson later reveals to the reader that this character is a victim of his wartime experiences, suffering from a private guilt due to lives he killed during the course of the war. Kabuo’s enlistment was “a matter of honour”, in that he saw it “…necessary to demonstrate his loyalty to the United States”. However, Guterson makes it evident that Kabuo’s icy exterior is a direct result of the war, “He only saw darkness after the war, in the world and in his own soul…”.
Kabuo feels a great sense of guilt for the lives he has taken, “He was a Buddhist and believed in the laws of karma, so it made sense to him that he might pay for his war murders: everything comes back to you, nothing is accidental. “For this reason, Kabuo also felt that, “he did not deserve for one moment the happiness his family bought to him”. Guterson likens Kabuo’s guilt and sins to a mountain, “the mountain of his violent sins was too large to climb in this lifetime”.
This metaphor paints a clear, vivid image in the reader’s mind of the size ofgulit that Kabuo faces and the sheer difficulty he has in coming to terms with his guilt. Kabuo’s wife Hatsue also faces difficult internal conflicts as a result of the war. Hatsue Miyamoto faced numerous internal conflicts as a result of World War Two. Initially, she must face the difficult struggle between her identity as an American and her parent’s Japanese herritage.
As a child, she is raised with strong principles and taught to, “…seek the union with Greater Life” and to “stay away from white men… and marry a boy of your own kind whose heart is strong and good”. At the core of this internal conflict, Hatsue experiences confusion between her family customs and what she feels for Ishmael. During the up-rise of war, she becomes increasingly aware of the divide separating her from the Americans, “Look at my eyes Ishmael. My face is the face of the people who did it… it’s how the Japanese look”.
Guterson details the effect that the war had on her judgment and subsequently, her decision to separate with Ishmael, “She was of this place and she was not of this place, and though she might desire to be an American was clear… she had the face of an American’s enemy and would always have such a face. She would never feel at home here among the Hakujin”. Guterson emerges as a third person, omniscient narrator to deliver this line, emphasizing the harsh truth that Hatsue must come to terms with.
As a result of the war, Hatsue and her family, due to their Japanese herritage, are forced to spend time in the Manzanar Interment Camp. As a result of this, Hatsue feels a sense of alienation, humiliation and rejection from her community. Manzanar is described as bleak and dust filled; a place in which Hatsue faces both humiliation and alienation from her former community, “Everyone had been unhappy… she had sulked more than anyone; she’d been listless and had gone about her chores with the sluggishness of someone grieving”.
Not only does Hatsue face internal conflicts in Manzanar, she must also deal with physical elements, “The bitter wind came down off the mountain sand through the barbed wire and hurled the desert sand in their faces” Guterson uses imagery of thesandt and barbed wire in this passage to symbolize the restriction and humiliation that Hatsue and her family faced during their time spent in Manzanar.
Though Hatsue did not directly participate in the war, she suffered internal conflicts as a result of it. Through the examination of hardships faced by characters in Snow Falling on Cedars, it is evident that war significantly impacted their lives in a negative manner. Guterson vividly details the lives of Ishmael, Kabuo and Hatsue who all faced difficult external and internal conflicts and were forced to come to terms with the effects of war on society.
In Snow Falling on Cedars, Guterson positions the reader to empathize with these characters by accentuating the brutal effects of war and the difficult internal and external conflicts that resulted from it. The overall message conveyed by Guterson about war is that it is an exterior force which is extremely impactive, life ultering, and causes deep pain both internally and externally.