Many of Snow Falling on Cedars’s characters find themselves frustrated and at the mercy of forces that are beyond their control. Ishmael is embittered by the arm he lost in the war and by his inability to win the heart of Hatsue Miyamoto, Kabuo’s current wife and Ishmael’s ex-girlfriend from adolescence whom he’s still in love with. Meanwhile, Kabuo Miyamoto believes his wrongful imprisonment is fate’s way of punishing him for the murders he committed as a soldier during World War II. Both characters have little faith in their ability to exercise any amount of genuine control over their lives. As a result, both Kabuo and Ishmael shut down, refusing to act of their own accord, and believing that any agency they exercise is for naught. Guterson, though, forces his characters either to submit to chance or to choose their own destiny, suggesting that choice does exist. Even though it often seems like the universe determines people’s fates for them, Guterson suggests that people do have some level of control over their lives and must act of their own accord when the opportunity to do so arises.
Kabuo believes that being accused of murder is fate’s way of making him pay for the violent acts he committed as a soldier. As he sits in his jail cell and considers his unjustified arrest, Kabuo thinks, “Perhaps it was now his fate to pay for the lives he had taken in anger. […] Everything was conjoined by mystery and fate, and in his darkened cell he meditated on this and it became increasingly clear to him.” Kabuo interprets the trial as fate punishing him for the murders he committed as a soldier. Kabuo’s family history informs his interpretation—as he comes from a family of samurai and warriors, he thinks that the violence in his family’s past means he is simply fated to be violent. When he first started his training in kendo, his proclivity for the art was immediately apparent: “It was said by many in the Kendo Club […] that the boy, Kabuo, had the stronger fighting spirit and a greater willingness to draw on his dark side in order to achieve a final victory. It was only after he’d killed four Germans that Kabuo saw how right they were, how they had seen deeply into his heart with the clarity of older people.” Kabuo recognizes the ferocity with which he is able to kill enemy soldiers as an inevitable, fated part of his personality. Kabuo continues to speculate: “He was a warrior, and this dark ferocity had been passed down in the blood of the Miyamoto family and he himself was fated to carry it into the next generation.” When Kabuo initially chooses not to come forward with the truth to his defense attorney and to the court—choosing not to tell them that he had encountered, and helped, Carl Heine the night of his murder—it is because he believes his actions are useless in the face of fate. To Kabuo’s mind, the trial and indictment are all part of fate’s larger plan for him. For much of the novel, Kabuo resigns himself to accepting that his life is at the mercy of fate. He chooses not to come forward with the truth because he feels his actions will have little impact against the stronger, uncontrollable forces of the universe—but his inaction nearly costs him his freedom.
Ishmael must choose between chance and choice when he discovers a crucial piece of evidence that could exonerate or indict Kabuo. Ishmael initially entertains the notion of keeping the information to himself, thus using his fateful discovery to entertain the possibility of winning back Hatsue while her husband rots in jail. When Ishmael goes down to the lighthouse to gather records for a newspaper story about the ongoing snowstorm, he discovers the coast guard’s notes from September 15. The notes reveal that an “enormous freighter,” the S.S. West Corona, had gotten turned around in the thick fog the night of Carl’s death. The thickness of the fog and the spottiness of the radio signal caused the Corona to “plow right through the fishing grounds.” By the end of his investigation, Ishmael realizes that Kabuo hadn’t murdered Carl: through a precise series of coincidental events, Carl had been hit by wave caused by the Corona, knocked from his own ship, and drowned. In this moment, Ishmael realizes that he and he alone holds the evidence necessary to exonerate Kabuo of a crime he almost certainly didn’t commit—a crime that wasn’t really a crime at all, but a fated accident. Fate, it would seem, is what killed Carl Heine. But fate, too, placed this crucial piece of evidence in Ishmael’s hands. Out of anger at the toll fate has taken on his life up until this point, Ishmael initially decides to withhold this information from the court. Should he withhold the logs from the court, he reasons, Kabuo would be sent to jail, and Ishmael might have a chance at winning back his long-lost love. In the end, Ishmael’s cynicism nearly prevents him from making the right decision.
Ishmael ultimately decides to show Judge Fielding the Coast Guard’s log. Ishmael’s dilemma (to keep the information to himself, or to present it to the court) shows that the world occasionally offers one some semblance of control over their own fate. When this happens, Guterson suggests, one must rise to the occasion and choose. Guterson emphasizes this point in the last lines of the novel: “Ishmael gave himself to the writing of [the news article reporting Kabuo’s exoneration], and as he did so he understood this, too: that accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart.” So much of life is mysterious and outside of one’s control—the best one can do in life is to make the morally right decisions when given the chance to choose.
Chance vs. Choice ThemeTracker
Chance vs. Choice Quotes in Snow Falling on Cedars
His cynicism—a veteran’s cynicism—was a thing that disturbed him all the time. It seemed to him after the war that the world was thoroughly altered. […] People appeared enormously foolish to him. He understood that they were only animated cavities full of jelly and strings and liquids.
Sitting where he sat now, accused of the murder of Carl Heine, it seemed to him he’d found the suffering place he’d fantasized and desired. For Kabuo Miyamoto was suffering in his cell from the fear of his imminent judgment. Perhaps it was now his fate to pay for the lives he had taken in anger.
“I’m not talking about the whole universe,” cut in Hatsue. “I’m talking about people—the sheriff, that prosecutor, the judge, you. People who can do things because they run newspapers or arrest people or convict them or decide about their lives. People don’t have to be unfair, do they? That isn’t just part of things, when people are unfair to somebody.”
“You’ll think this is crazy,” Ishmael said. “But all I want is to hold you. All I want is just to hold you once and smell your hair, Hatsue. I think after that I’ll be better.”
“I can’t tell you what to do, Ishmael. I’ve tried to understand what it’s been like for you—having gone to war, having lost your arm, not having married or had children. 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 […]. But you—you went numb, Ishmael. And you’ve stayed numb all these years.”
“I’m an American,” Kabuo cut in. “Just like you or anybody. Am I calling you a Nazi, you big Nazi bastard? I killed men who looked just like you—pig-fed German bastards. I’ve got blood on my soul, Carl, and it doesn’t wash off very easily. So don’t you talk to me about Japs, you big Nazi son of a bitch.”
“The storm,” said the judge, “is beyond our control, but the outcome of this trial is not. The outcome of this trial is up to you now. You may adjourn and begin your deliberations.”
“There are things in this universe that we cannot control, and then there are the things we can. Your task as you deliberate together on these proceedings is to ensure that you do nothing to yield to a universe in which things go awry by happenstance. Let fate, coincidence, and accident conspire; human beings must act on reason.”
But the war, his arm, the course of things—it had all made his heart much smaller. He had not moved on at all. […] 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. He read her letter another time and understood that she had once admired him, there was something in him she was grateful for even if she could not love him. That was a part of himself he’d lost over the years, that was the part that was gone.