Snow Falling on Cedars

by

David Guterson

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Snow Falling on Cedars: Chapter 24 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Ishmael arrives at his mother’s house. He feels the logs in his coat pocket. His mother, Helen Chambers, is in the kitchen. He tells her of all the car accidents the snowstorm has caused. Helen Chambers is “the sort of country widow who lives alone quite capably.” She reads, has acquaintances, and generally manages to fill her days. Her husband’s death has made her focus more on “her books and flowers” and has instilled in her “a greater need for people.”
Ishmael’s reference to the logs evokes his new moral dilemma. He knows he should tell the court about his discovery, yet he sits on the evidence anyway. Helen’s decision to become more invested in “her books and flowers” and expand her social life is evocative of her choice to move forward in life after her husband’s death. Helen’s proactive approach stands in sharp contrast Ishmael’s bitterness. Met with adversity, Helen continues to grow while Ishmael continues to stagnate and suffer.
Themes
The Psychological Impact of War  Theme Icon
Duty vs. Desire Theme Icon
Ishmael recalls a conversation with Helen in which he’d expressed his agnosticism. Helen asks Ishmael, if he had to choose at that very moment whether to believe or not, if he’d believe in God. Ishmael asserts that he doesn’t have to choose. Helen seems sad at this response, and recalls how, as a child, Ishmael used to “feel” God.
Ishmael’s loss of religion seems to be a result of the psychological trauma he carries from his involvement in the war. His agnosticism also speaks to his current inability to discern which aspects of life are within his control and which are beyond his control.
Themes
The Psychological Impact of War  Theme Icon
Chance vs. Choice Theme Icon
Back in the present, Ishmael once more feels the coast guard’s logs in his pocket. He thinks about God some more. After the war, he’d been unable to take solace in God’s supposed presence.
The violence and atrocities Ishmael witnessed during the war leave him unable to accept the idea of God. The coast guard’s logs he feels in his pocket show that he continues to be morally conflicted between letting the outcome of Kabuo’s trial fall to “fate” or exercise control by coming forward with the logs.
Themes
The Psychological Impact of War  Theme Icon
Chance vs. Choice Theme Icon
Duty vs. Desire Theme Icon
Helen urges Ishmael to stay the night, and they get to discussing the trial. Helen considers it a “travesty” that they’ve likely arrested Kabuo because of his Japanese ancestry. She asks Ishmael for his opinion. Ishmael becomes cold and lies: “I have to think he’s guilty.” He cites all of Hooks’s evidence, taking care to present it as objective—even though he knows it was anything but.
Unlike Ishmael, whose conscience is clouded by the residual bitterness from his breakup with Hatsue so many years ago, Helen clearly sees the way the court chooses to act on their prejudices in Kabuo’s trial. Despite the logs he carries in his pocket that are proof of Kabuo’s innocence, Ishmael insists that Kabuo is “guilty” because he wants to get back at Hatsue for the heartbreak she caused him in their youth. Helen’s description of Kabuo’s arrest as a “travesty” shows that she has strong moral integrity, like her late-husband.
Themes
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
The Psychological Impact of War  Theme Icon
Duty vs. Desire Theme Icon
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Ishmael cites Kabuo’s “unmovable and stolid” posture in court, and how Kabuo seems not to care that he might be sentenced to death. He tells Helen that Kabuo’s unreadable face reminds him of a training lecture he’d received as a soldier, in which a colonel told him that the Japanese “would die fighting before [they] would surrender.” To the Japanese, there was an honor in dying. Ishmael recognizes that these lessons were “all propaganda” administered to soldiers so they’d have less trouble killing their enemy. Still, Ishmael recalls this propaganda when he sees Kabuo in the courtroom.
Ishmael attacks Kabuo’s “unmovable and stolid” composure, attributing it to a detachment from and acceptance of death that is central to Japanese culture. Ishmael acknowledges that he’s learned to be derisive towards Japanese cultural ideas because of his training in WWII, in which the United States military emphasized Japanese soldiers’ willingness to die so it would be easier to kill them. Ishmael is aware that his instruction was “all propaganda,” but doesn’t seem willing to dismiss the propaganda, as it excuses the personal derision he feels toward Kabuo.
Themes
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
The Psychological Impact of War  Theme Icon
Helen challenges her son. Didn’t Kabuo serve in the United States military, just as Ishmael did? Ishmael stubbornly refutes this, dismissing this fact as irrelevant. Helen accuses her son of “allowing [himself] an imbalance.” She asks whether they can rely on “cold” facts alone. Ishmael makes a distinction between “facts” and “emotions and hunches,” and proclaims that cold, hard facts are most important. Helen accuses Ishmael of having gone “cold.”
When Helen reminds her son of Kabuo’s military service, she tries to mitigate his prejudices, steering Ishmael away from his and Kabuo’s differences and towards their similarities. Helen and Ishmael’s argument about “facts” versus “emotions and hunches” harkens back to Ishmael’s earlier argument with his father about which facts should be published in the Review. In these arguments, Guterson implores the reader to see how all facts are interpreted through the lens of narrative, and it is up to humanity to decide which narrative is the fairest and most moral.
Themes
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
The Psychological Impact of War  Theme Icon
Facts vs. Truth Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Ishmael is upset with Helen, who doesn’t seem to understand the hardships he’s endured. He compares the differences in their grieving processes when Arthur had died. His mother’s grief had made her “cold,” but she’s still sought happiness. Ishmael, in contrast, has let himself stagnate. “I’m unhappy,” he tells his mother. “Tell me what to do.”
Ishmael’s hardships (the war and his breakup) caused him to stagnate, become “unhappy,” and retreat within himself, and he is jealous of Helen’s ability to bounce back from her grief.
Themes
Helen tells Ishmael that she’s tried to understand his sadness: she knows his arm, the war, and being single can’t have been easy for him. Still, she can’t wrap her head around his inability to move on with his life. Other people have suffered hardships and managed to move on with their lives—to make new connections, to enjoy the sensations of living. Ishmael, she observes, has gone “numb.” Even Ishmael’s father, who’d fought at Bellau Wood, had managed to move on with his life.
Helen validates the real traumas—mental and physical—the war imposed on her son. Still, she cannot accept his inability to move on and experience personal growth so many years later. She cites Arthur as an example of someone who moved on from personal hardship. Such a comparison would be especially impactful for Ishmael, as he constantly frets over his inability to match his father’s moral and professional sensibilities. 
Themes
The Psychological Impact of War  Theme Icon
Duty vs. Desire Theme Icon
Related Quotes
After he and his mother eat dinner, Ishmael retreats to his room. He thinks about his childhood. He goes outside to check on his mother’s chickens, then goes back to his room and thinks about the baseball pennant collection he’d had as a boy. He and his father had both liked baseball and would listen to games on the radio together.
As Ishmael ruminates over the childhood artifacts that remind him of his father, it’s clear that Helen’s words have resonated with him in some meaningful way—why has he not been able to embrace life and morality after hardship like his father? Are fate and the universe holding him back, or is it simply a matter of making the decision to move forward?
Themes
The Psychological Impact of War  Theme Icon
Chance vs. Choice Theme Icon
Ishmael’s thoughts turn to his father’s death. Arthur had pancreatic cancer, and had died in Seattle. Over 100 islanders had turned out for Arthur’s funeral. In particular, the island’s Japanese population had expressed sadness over Arthur’s death, as well as their “great respect for him as a newspaperman and as a neighbor, a man of great fairness and compassion for others.” Masato Nagaishi tells Ishmael, “We know you will follow in your father’s footsteps.”
Guterson emphasizes how honored and important Arthur Chambers was to the San Piedro community. In particular, members of the Japanese community remember Arthur’s support of them during a time of heightened prejudice. Ishmael particularly remembers Nagaishi’s comment about his father’s “great fairness and compassion” because it makes him think of Hatsue’s earlier request for him to publish a story about the unfairness of Kabuo’s trial. Arthur would have published such a story immediately; though Nagaishi predicted Ishmael would “follow in [his] father’s footsteps,” he has so far failed to respond to Hatsue’s request for fairness and compassion.
Themes
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Facts vs. Truth Theme Icon
Duty vs. Desire Theme Icon
Ishmael looks in his bedroom closet, where he knows he will find Hatsue’s final letter to him. He reads the letter. In her letter, Hatsue tells him that, although she doesn’t love him, she wishes him well. She notes that he’s a good person who will have a positive impact on the world, but she says that she has to say good-bye because it’s time for them both to move on with their lives. He reflects on the incongruity of their feelings: in the very moment he’d felt certain of his love, she’d felt uncertain of hers.
Ishmael realizes his belief in his and Hatsue’s mutual love was a delusion caused by his desire for their love to be true. In other words, Hatsue hadn’t truly loved him—he only wanted to believe she did. When in her breakup letter she writes that they should both move on, Hatsue offers Ishmael the opportunity to reflect on the ways he hasn’t yet moved on, but he overlooks this opportunity and instead chooses to wallow in self-pity.
Themes
The Psychological Impact of War  Theme Icon
Facts vs. Truth Theme Icon
Ishmael thinks about his life after Hatsue and after the war. He’d slept with three women in Seattle, but he dumped them all fairly quickly, out of “disgust” and lack of “respect.” He used sex to avoid his unhappiness and loneliness. Arthur informed him of his sickness soon after these escapades, and Ishmael hasn’t been with a woman since.
Ishmael used casual sex to avoid coming to terms with his delusion about Hatsue’s love—it was easier for him to blunt the pain of her rejection than accept that he had been wrong about her feelings for him from the start. Arthur’s sickness and death provided another way for Ishmael to avoid addressing his misplaced beliefs directly
Themes
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Ishmael decides he will write the article in the San Piedro Review that Hatsue asked him to write—though not for the noble reasons that would’ve motivated Arthur Chambers to do so. Of course, Arthur would’ve also shown the coast guard’s logs to Judge Fielding immediately upon finding them, Ishmael notes, again feeling the notes in his pocket. Ishmael leaves the notes in his pocket, and tells himself he will write the article—not to protest the trial’s unfairness, but “in order to make [Hatsue] beholden to him.” With Hatsue “beholden” to Ishmael, and with her husband, Kabuo, in jail, perhaps the star-crossed couple can finally reunite, Ishmael reasons.
Ishmael decides to write the article Hatsue requested about the unfairness of Kabuo’s trial. Still at the mercy of his own delusions– that he and Hatsue can have a future together—he schemes to write the letter “to make [Hatsue] beholden to him.” Arthur Chambers would have published the letter in response to a moral imperative, but Ishmael writes the letter to act on his delusional, selfish desires. Additionally, Ishmael continues to keep the coast guard’s logs in his pocket, still more proof of his insistence on living in the past, burdened by old grudges.
Themes
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Facts vs. Truth Theme Icon
Duty vs. Desire Theme Icon