So much of Snow Falling on Cedars centers around a quest for the truth. The jury of San Piedro undertakes one such quest when they are tasked with determining whether Kabuo Miyamoto is innocent or guilty of Carl Heine’s murder. Throughout the novel, Guterson investigates the ways that facts may be interpreted differently depending on the truth people want to believe, given their various prejudices and personal motives. In the novel, Guterson argues that truth is not clear cut and objective; instead, truth is subject to interpretation and can be trimmed and tucked to fit the narrative a person wants to create or perpetuate. And, since truth is subjective, Guterson also suggests that one must think critically about why they believe what they do.
Guterson establishes the conflict between facts and truth early in the novel, when Ishmael recalls an argument he had years ago with his father, Arthur Chambers, who had founded and reported for the San Piedro Review, the island’s sole newspaper. The argument concerned the process by which his Arthur chose which facts to select for publication in the Review and which to leave out. Ishmael recalls his father’s coverage of prejudice directed at the Japanese islanders during the war: “Arthur printed the sheriff’s message. He printed a notice from the defense authority telling Japanese nationals on San Piedro that as of December 14 they could no longer ride the ferries. Twenty-four men, he wrote in a news article, had been named by Larry Phillips to be the civilian defense auxiliary fire force, including George Tachibana, Fred Yasui, and Edward Wakayama.” Arthur Chambers, Ishmael’s father, printed the names of these three men in particular in order to stick up for the Japanese Americans on San Piedro island, to paint them in a positive light in a time of heightened prejudice. Arthur explained: “Yes I did, I singled those three out. […] Not every fact is just a fact, […] It’s a kind of…balancing act. A juggling of pins, all kinds of pins, that’s just what journalism is about.” In Arthur’s eyes, journalism is about contextualizing facts so that they form a larger truth. A journalist has to emphasize certain facts and omit others in order to tell a story. But Ishmael disagreed. “That isn’t journalism,” he responded to his father. “Journalism is just the facts.” Arthur challenged his son, though, asking, “But which facts? […] Which facts do we print, Ishmael?” Arthur believed that people instinctually impose a narrative onto the facts they observe, leaving out some and playing up others in order to fit the truths they want to believe; his job as a journalist, therefore, is to decide which “truths” the people need to hear. In this instance, Arthur arranged his facts to support the narrative that the Japanese citizens of San Piedro are not traitorous spies, but loyal Americans doing their part to protect the country—a truth, Arthur felt, many of the prejudiced islanders were unwilling to see.
The bias involved in Carl Heine’s autopsy demonstrates another instance in which a subjective interpretation of facts is molded into “truth.” Guterson states that, as San Piedro’s coroner, “It was [Horace Whaley’s] duty to find out the truth.” Although Horace’s task seems to be objective in nature, he is quick to construct a subjective narrative of the truth that implicates Kabuo Miyamoto in Carl’s murder. When Horace discovers “the wound to the skull over the dead man’s left ear,” his thoughts immediately turn to Kabuo and the Japanese martial art of kendo. Horace generalizes: “The majority of Japs […] inflicted death over the left ear, swinging in from the right.” Fueled by prejudice and referring to Kabuo with an ethnic slur, Horace constructs an autopsy report that implicates Kabuo in the death from the start. While Horace constructs his autopsy report around physical, factual pieces of evidence found on the corpse, the choices he makes in his examination are fueled by a narrative he chose to believe in: that most of the Japanese people he encountered in the war inflicted wounds of this sort, that Kabuo was Japanese and fought in the war, and that, therefore, this wound must have been inflicted by Kabuo, thus implicating him in Carl’s murder. In fact, the wound on Carl’s head was caused by Carl’s own ship, and the death was accidental. Horace hadn’t bothered to consider this as a possibility, though, as he was already invested in his subjective version of the truth.
As the residents of San Piedro are tasked with determining Kabuo Miyamoto’s guilt or innocence, they must also grapple with the larger issue of determining their own assessments of what constitutes the truth. Some, like Horace Whaley, never pause to consider the way their own prejudices influence their grasp of what is true or false. Others, like Ishmael Chambers, discover that defining and reflecting on truth is more complicated than simply regurgitating the facts. Ultimately, the characters to whom Guterson extends the most sympathy are those who have learned to recognize their limited perspective and see beyond their personal, subjective versions of the world.
Facts vs. Truth ThemeTracker
Facts vs. Truth Quotes in Snow Falling on Cedars
An unflagging loyalty to his profession and its principles had made Arthur, over the years, increasingly deliberate in his speech and actions, and increasingly exacting regarding the truth in even his most casual reportage. He was, his son remembered, morally meticulous, and though Ishmael might strive to emulate this, there was nevertheless the matter of the war—this matter of the arm he’d lost—that made such scrupulosity difficult.
Carl Heine’s dark struggle, his effort to hold his breath, the volume of water that had filled the vacuum of his gut, his profound unconsciousness and final convulsions, his terminal gasps in the grip of death as the last of the air leaked out of him and his heart halted and his brain ceased to consider anything—they were all recorded, or not recorded, in the slab of flesh that lay on Horace Whaley’s examination table. It was his duty to find out the truth.
The fishermen felt, like most islanders, that this exiling of the Japanese was the right thing to do, and leaned against the cabins of their stern-pickers and bow-pickers with the conviction that the Japanese must go for reasons that made sense: there was a war on and that changed everything.
“Not every fact is just a fact,” he added. “It’s all a kind of…balancing act. A juggling of pins, all kinds of pins, that’s what journalism is about.”
“That isn’t journalism,” Ishmael answered. “Journalism is just the facts.”
“But which facts?” Arthur asked him. “Which facts do we print, Ishmael?”
Art Moran looked into the Jap’s eyes to see if he could discern the truth there. But they were hard eyes set in a proud, still face, and there was nothing to be read in them either way. They were the eyes of a man with concealed emotions, the eyes of a man hiding something. “You’re under arrest,” repeated Art Moran, “in connection with the death of Carl Heine.”
“The defense hasn’t made its case yet, but you’re all ready to convict. You’ve got the prosecutor’s set of facts, but that might not be the whole story—it never is, Ishmael. And besides, really, facts are so cold, so horribly cold—can we defend on facts by themselves?”
“What else do we have?” replied Ishmael. “Everything else is ambiguous. Everything else is emotions and hunches. At least the facts you can cling to; the emotions just float away.”
“I’m not interpreting or misinterpreting,” Alvin Hooks cut in. “I merely want to know what the facts are—we all want to know what the facts are, Mrs. Miyamoto, that’s what we’re doing here.”