The struggle to choose between one’s sense of duty and one’s desires is a central theme of Snow Falling on Cedars. While most characters eventually accept the necessity of honoring duty over desire, they arrive at this conclusion on vastly different terms. Often, marginalized characters recognize their obligation to duty far sooner than those of a privileged racial identity. The opposite ways Hatsue Miyamoto and Ishmael Chambers reflect on their secret relationship illustrates this point. In flashbacks to their adolescent affair, Guterson reveals that Hatsue, who is the daughter of Japanese immigrants, fears that her relationship with Ishmael, who is white and American, diminishes her ability to honor her family and cultural heritage. In contrast, Ishmael is more idealistic. He believes, naively, that love can conquer all, ignoring all of the social problems and prejudices that stand in the way of their romance. Through Hatsue’s and Ishmael’s different perspectives on love and duty, Guterson highlights how following one’s desires—especially when it means abandoning one’s duty to their family or culture—is a privilege that marginalized people don’t often have.
Ishmael Chambers acknowledges the societal ills that complicate his relationship with Hatsue—such as the heightened prejudice against people of Japanese descent during WWII—yet he chooses to ignore them. He uses the ineffable power of love to validate acting on his desires. Because of this, Ishmael can’t relate to Hatsue’s hesitations about their relationship. He doesn’t understand Hatsue’s conflict between desire and honor, due, in large part, to his idealistic notions about love: “I don’t care what else happens,” he tells Hatsue, “I’m always going to love you.” To Ishmael, the power of love is enough to validate their relationship. Ishmael insists that outside obstacles “don’t really matter.” He believes that “love is the strongest thing in the world […] Nothing can touch it. Nothing comes close. If we love each other we’re safe from it. Love is the biggest thing there is.”
Unlike Hatsue, Ishmael’s desires aren’t complicated by any outside obligations. His privilege allows him to make decisions based solely on his own desires. When Hatsue tells Ishmael that continuing their relationship without her family’s knowledge makes her feel “evil,” Ishmael objects. “How can this be evil?” he asks Hatsue. “It wouldn’t make any sense for this to be evil. It’s the world that’s evil, Hatsue, […] Don’t pay it any mind.” Ishmael’s observation is true, of course: the world’s racism is objectively wrong. Still, Ishmael’s belief that Hatsue can simply ignore the societal ills that complicate their relationship is reflective of the privilege that allows him to subscribe to such idealism. Should the couple’s secret relationship come to light, the consequences Ishmael would incur are significantly lesser than those Hatsue would face. Hatsue could lose her family—her primary source of comfort and belonging in a place that immediately rejects and others her based on her ethnicity.
Unable to reconcile her love for Ishmael with the moral guilt she feels for deceiving her parents, Hatsue is far less optimistic about the future of the couple’s relationship. The social ills that are so easy for Ishmael to ignore factor heavily into Hatsue’s decision to break off the relationship in the name of honor and obligation. Hatsue doubts the morality of her desire for Ishmael from the very start of their romance, recognizing that her instinctual desire for Ishmael contradicts her duty to honor her family. Society’s disapproval of interracial relationships forces the couple to go behind their parents’ backs. Hatsue know her parents will disapprove, and she feels guilty and immoral for deceiving them. Hatsue struggles to come to terms with the incongruity of her heart: the more she acts on her desires, the less she is able to act on her obligations. Hatsue confesses to Ishmael that deceiving her family “made her feel she had betrayed them in a way that was nothing less than evil.” Hatsue’s choice of the word evil underscores the intensity with which outside forces weigh on her as she contemplates her relationship.
After the government sends Hatsue’s father to an internment camp, Hatsue’s mother, Fujiko, instructs her daughters to accept the hate, darkness, and injustice of their present world, evidenced by the hakujin’s (white people’s) hatred for the Japanese. Hatsue, thinking of Ishmael, protests that not all of the hakujin hate the Japanese. But Fujiko stands her ground: “These are difficult times. […] Nobody knows who they are now. Everything is cloudy and unclear. Still, you should learn to say nothing that will cause you regret. You should not say what is not in your heart—or what is only in your heart for a moment.” Fujiko’s words resonate with Hatsue, and she sees the futility of navigating her inner conflict between her duty to her family and her desire for Ishmael: “Who was she to say how she felt?” Hatsue realizes. “What she felt remained a mystery, she felt a thousand things at once, she could not unravel the thread of her feelings with enough certainty to speak with any accuracy. Her mother was right, silence was better. It was something—one thing—she knew with clarity.” Fujiko teaches Hatsue that one’s desires are rarely separate from one’s obligations. When she advises Hatsue against saying “what is only in [her] heart for a moment,” she suggests to her daughter that it’s more important to act pragmatically and honorably than to act one’s fleeting emotional impulses. Through Ishmael and Hatsue’s conflicting responses to the adversities that threaten to dismantle their love, Guterson explores who can afford to act on their desires and who cannot.
Duty vs. Desire ThemeTracker
Duty vs. Desire Quotes in Snow Falling on Cedars
The inside of the tree felt private. He felt they would never be discovered here. […] The rain afforded an even greater privacy; no one in the world would come this way and find them inside this tree.
“That is the fundamental difference, Hatsue. We bend our heads, we bow and are silent, because we understand that by ourselves, alone, we are nothing at all, dust in a strong wind, while the hakujin believes his aloneness is everything, his separateness is the foundation of his existence. He seeks and grasps, seeks and grasps for the separateness, while we seek union with the Greater Life—you must see that these are distinct paths we are traveling, Hatsue, the hakujin and we Japanese.”
She was of this place and she was not of this place, and though she might desire to be an American it was clear, as her mother said, that she had the face of America’s enemy and would always have such a face.
“None of those other things makes a difference. Love is the strongest thing in the world, you know. Nothing can touch it. Nothing comes close. If we love each other we’re safe from it all. Love is the biggest thing there is.”