Snow Falling on Cedars

by

David Guterson

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Snow Falling on Cedars: Chapter 23 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Ishmael heads over to the coast guard lighthouse on Point White. The lighthouse’s purpose is to direct disoriented ships in the face of unsavory weather. Before the tower was built, 11 ships had run aground. Decades have passed since then, and there is no longer any sign of the ships—they’ve all washed away. Despite the presence of the lighthouse, accidents still happen when the fog is too thick to see through. The wrecks almost cannot be helped. Islanders consider them to be “ordained by God, or at any rate unavoidable.” They accept the inevitability of shipwrecks, but ponder them privately.
The lighthouse is San Piedro’s attempt to exercise some control over the unpredictable, often violent storms that wreak havoc on island life. In this way, the lighthouse symbolizes humanity’s often-futile attempts to understand and accept whatever fate has in store. The islanders try to accept fate’s place in their lives, but the fact that they ruminate over shipwrecks in private suggests that they’ve never fully come to terms with their inability to control their lives.
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Ishmael sits before “the lighthouse chief petty officer, […] Evan Powell.” Ishmael tells Powell he’s writing a story about the storm and would like to go through old logs to compare this storm’s intensity to past storms. Powell tells Ishmael that the lighthouse keeps a lot of logs, but telephones Levant, the radioman, to assist Ishmael. Levant directs Ishmael to the records room. He shows Ishmael how all records—radio transmissions, shipping logs, weather reports, maintenance—are sorted by date. Levant reveals that he’s been the radioman only for a few months—he was promoted after some others were transferred to another location.
The wealth of radio logs seems to represent humanity’s attempt to make sense of the forces over which they have no control. Along these lines, Ishmael’s decision to write a story about the storm represents his individual attempt to exercise control over this one aspect of life—something he is rarely able to do. He might not be able to control Hatsue’s feelings or his amputated arm, but he can at least try to make sense of the weather.
Themes
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Ishmael tries to concentrate on the abundance of records, but his thoughts are pulled back to Hatsue in the backseat of his car earlier that day. He is overcome by memories of his and Hatsue’s first interactions after the war. In particular, he recalls a moment when he was behind her in line at the general store. Ishmael stood there, hating her silently, as she told him she was sorry that he’d lost his arm in the war. Ishmael replied, “The Japs did it.” Ishmael immediately apologized to Hatsue for the derogatory comment, and for “everything.” He told her how miserable he was. They parted ways.
Ishmael berates Hatsue with a racist slur as a way of expressing his bitterness towards what he sees as the results of fate—his amputated arm and Hatsue’s rejection. Verbally assaulting Hatsue allows Ishmael to exercise some control over his misfortunes. 
Themes
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The Psychological Impact of War  Theme Icon
Chance vs. Choice Theme Icon
During this period, Ishmael would seek refuge in nature, taking long hikes along the beach. On one of these walks, he encountered Hatsue and her baby. Hatsue refused to speak with him then. Ishmael whined about how lonely he was, and begged for Hatsue to hold him one last time. If Hatsue could do this, Ishmael reasoned, he could finally move on from her. But Hatsue declined: she was married, after all. “I feel terrible for your misery, but I’m not going to hold you, Ishmael,” she said. “You’re going to have to live without holding me.”
Ishmael walks through nature in attempt to forget the miserable reality of his life. Throughout the novel, nature functions as a world separate from society’s problems and prejudices. When Hatsue tells Ishmael that she’s “not going to hold [him]” she implies that it’s Ishmael’s responsibility to get himself through his misery. He cannot rely on fate and others to improve his condition; rather, he must choose to change himself.
Themes
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
The Psychological Impact of War  Theme Icon
Chance vs. Choice Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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Ishmael stops daydreaming and focuses on his task of combing through the maritime records. His thoughts of Hatsue have made him wonder if, perhaps, there’s evidence pertaining to Kabuo’s trial present among all the records and logs. He abandons his research for the storm story and turns instead to the records for September 15 and 16. In a series of transmission logs, Ishmael discovers that, the night/morning of Carl’s death, a large ship called the S.S. West Corona had passed, off course, through the Ship Channel Bank, where Carl’s boat had been. The logs were signed by “a Seaman Philip Milholland.” Ishmael pockets the logs and returns to Levant.
Ishmael’s choice to search for transmission logs related Kabuo’s trial implies that he wants to take matters into his own hands rather than leave the trial’s verdict to chance. Ishmael seems to have been motivated to act by his lovesick daydreaming over Hatsue, suggesting that his motivations for investigating the logs are less than morally respectable. It’s more likely that Ishmael wants to find something in the logs that will incriminate Kabuo, thus enabling him to get back at Hatsue for the anguish she’s caused him all these years.
Themes
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Duty vs. Desire Theme Icon
Ishmael asks Levant who Milholland might be. Levant explains that Milholland was the radioman whom he replaced—on September 16. Ishmael realizes that Milholland had logged the Corona’s transmissions and then immediately been transferred elsewhere. “Nobody knows,” Ishmael realizes. The men had filed away these logs among hundreds of others just like them. There would be no reason for anybody involved in the trial to even start to look for evidence here.
Because Ishmael is the only person who knows about the notes, he is the only person in possession of the information they contain. The reader will soon see that these notes contain information that could exonerate Kabuo. Thus, Ishmael is now tasked with deciding whether to honor his moral obligation to come forward with the notes, or to act selfishly and keep them to himself. 
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Ishmael pieces together the meaning of these logs: “that on the night Carl Heine had drowned, stopping his watch at 1:47, a freighter plowed through Ship Channel Bank at 1:42—just 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.” These logs prove that Kabuo couldn’t have murdered Carl.
Ishmael is the only person who possesses the information necessary to exonerate Kabuo. Thus, Ishmael faces a new moral dilemma: he must decide whether he will act with moral integrity and bring forward the notes, or act selfishly and keep the notes to himself, almost certainly sealing Kabuo’s fate and getting back at Hatsue for the misery she has caused him.
Themes
Chance vs. Choice Theme Icon
Duty vs. Desire Theme Icon