Guterson’s depiction of wartime violence in Snow Falling on Cedars isn’t limited to the confines of the battlefield; on the contrary, the novel’s characters who fought in World War II feel the psychological effects of the war from a distance and long after armistice has been declared. Ishmael Chambers, San Piedro’s only journalist and the book’s protagonist, feels perpetually alienated and embittered by the arm he lost in battle; Kabuo Miyamoto, the fisherman brought to trial for the murder of fellow fisherman Carl Heine, feels immense guilt over the violent acts he was forced to commit as a solider. At present, both men find themselves struggling to return to the normalcy of their pre-war lives, demonstrating the devastating long-term consequences of war.
Throughout the novel, Ishmael Chambers feels antagonized by his missing arm and the unsolicited looks of pity it brings him. He feels othered and out of place among the urban population of Seattle, where he attended college, and even among the fellow islanders he’s known all his life. Ishmael fixates constantly on his missing arm, often feeling alienated by the way it makes him stick out to others: “He was keenly aware of his pinned-up sleeve, and troubled because it troubled other people. Since they could not forget about it, neither could he.” Ishmael’s missing arm—and the response it generates—serves as a constant reminder of a war he’d rather forget. The war also makes Ishmael bitter and unfriendly towards others. He admits that “He didn’t like very many people anymore or very many things, either.” Even though the war has long been over, the violence it inflicted on Ishmael remains embedded in his soul.
Though Ishmael would like to move forward and live up to the revered, virtuous image of his father—who was also a journalist—his bitterness in the wake of World War II holds him back. Ishmael longs to be like his father, who was a well-respected figure on San Piedro. Ishmael describes his late father, Arthur Chambers, as “deliberate in his speech and actions” and “morally meticulous.” After his father’s death from cancer, Ishmael took on the responsibility of running the local newspaper, but he’s remained unable to tend to the position with his father’s level of moral meticulousness. Ishmael wants to emulate his father’s morality, but he remains too fixated on the past: “though Ishmael might strive to emulate [his father], there was nevertheless this matter of the war—this matter of the arm he’d lost—that made such scrupulosity difficult. He had a chip on his shoulder.” Ishmael strives to become the virtuous, precise man his father once was, but the grudges he harbors towards the war prevent him from doing so. Ishmael might’ve taken on his father’s occupation, but he is only going through the motions. The war’s psychological impact renders him unable to live in the present, diminishing his ability write and act with his father’s sense of moral obligation and integrity.
Kabuo Miyamoto is also forced to shoulder the long-term effects of the war, as he anguishes constantly over the murders he was forced to commit as a soldier. As Kabuo sits in his jail cell during the murder trial, he ponders the state of his broken soul: “He knew himself privately to be guilty of murder, to have murdered men in the course of war, and it was this guilt—he knew no other word—that lived in him perpetually and that he exerted himself not to communicate.” Kabuo’s actions during the war have had lasting repercussions. Even though he’s not guilty of the murder he’s on trial for, he’s haunted by all of the other murders he’s committed, which makes him feel like he’s deserving of punishment. Kabuo’s initial decision to withhold from his defense attorney and from the court the truth of his whereabouts and interaction with Carl Heine the night of Carl’s death reflects the depth of his guilt. Kabuo feels such remorse for the German soldiers he killed during the war that he believes he has no right to defend himself now. Like Ishmael, the psychological trauma Kabuo incurred during the war persists into the present day. Through these two men—one brimming with bitterness and the other riddled with guilt—Guterson makes a larger narrative comment about the tragedy of war. Even though World War II has come to a close, the violence, hatred, injustice, and pain bound up in war is sutured into the bones of the soldiers, who are forced to carry their war-related baggage day in and day out for the rest of their lives.
The Psychological Impact of War ThemeTracker
The Psychological Impact of War Quotes in Snow Falling on Cedars
All in all, Art decided, Carl Heine was a good man. He was silent, yes, and grave like his mother, but the war had a part in that, Art realized. Carl rarely laughed, but he did not seem, to Art’s way of thinking, unhappy or dissatisfied.
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.
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.
What could he say to people on San Piedro to explain the coldness he projected? The world was unreal, a nuisance that prevented him from focusing on the memory of that boy, on the flies in a cloud over his astonished face […] the sound of gunfire from the hillside to the east—he’d left there, and then he hadn’t left. […] It had seemed to Kabuo that his detachment from this world was somehow self-explanatory, that the judge, the jurors, and the people in the gallery would recognize the face of a war veteran […]. Now, looking at himself, scrutinizing his face, he saw that he appeared defiant instead.
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.
“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.”
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.