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The major theme of the novel is the detrimental effects of racial prejudice. The government, legal system, and the majority of the white citizens treat the Japanese islanders as second-class citizens worthy only of distrust. Laws prevented the Japanese from becoming citizens and owning land. Fear and distrust allowed the government to label the Japanese as threats and force them into internment camps. As a result, Japanese-Americans were stripped of their rights and lost their property.
In the novel, racial prejudice has a part in the arrest of Kabuo for murder. Horace Whaley’s comment that Sheriff Moran should look for a right-handed “Jap” is one of the reasons the sheriff provides Judge Fielding for a search warrant. Additionally, defense attorney Nels Gudmundsson must address the jury’s racial prejudices if he is to have any hope of winning his case. Through Gudmundsson, Guterson conveys his moral viewpoint: “And so the shape of Kabuo Miyamoto’s eyes, the country of his parents’ birth -- these things must not influence your decision. You must sentence him simply as an American, equal in the eyes of our legal system to every other American.... We hate one another, we are the victims of irrational fears. And there is nothing in the stream of human history to suggest we are going to change this.... I merely wish to point out that in the face of such a world you have only yourselves to rely on. You have only the decision you must make, each of you, alone. And will you contribute to the indifferent forces that ceaselessly conspire toward injustice? Or will you stand up against this endless tide and in the face of it be truly human?” To be truly human means acting on reason rather than prejudices.
It should be noted that some critics fault Guterson for amplifying the racial prejudice of white America. It is obvious from Fujiko’s comments and the teachings of Mrs. Shigemura that racial prejudice exists in both cultures. Fujiko implores her daughters not to become part of the world of the hakujin, or white America. She and Mrs. Shigemura make sweeping, prejudicial statements about white America’s egos, lusts, distorted sex drives, and the darkness in their hearts. But, in comparison to other characters, particularly Etta Heine, the prejudices of the Japanese characters are downplayed. This downplay does make the reader more sympathetic to Kabuo and to Ishmael and Hatsue whose love is halted by the climate of racial prejudice.
Another theme in this novel is the physical and emotional effects of war. The atrocities of war leave the characters unable to communicate and feeling ineffective and guilty. The men in this novel are constantly reminded of the war. Carl is unable to communicate with his wife. Horace Whaley feels he is ineffective because he was unable to save those in his care when he was at war. Kabuo carries his guilt on his face, and life gets in the way of him remembering the young German boy he killed. For Ishmael, the loss of his arm is a constant reminder of the war. His war experiences make him distant from others. He finds it hard to relate to other people. The darkness of war inhabits many of the characters. Throughout the novel, Guterson shows how war creates emotional and physical obstacles to communication, happiness, and love.
POINT OF VIEW
Snow Falling on Cedars is told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator. Guterson’s omniscient narrator is able to move from the external details, such as describing Kabuo’s outward appearance, to the inner thoughts and feelings of individual characters. Guterson’s narrator is also able to describe events in history, such as the immigration of the Japanese to the U.S.
The omniscient narrator in this novel enters the minds and thoughts of the characters and shifts according to each character’s perspective. As a result, the reader discerns the different voices of Kabuo, Hatsue, Ishmael, and all of the other characters. The reader is able to actually enter the minds of the characters and learn exactly what characters are thinking at particular moments, especially in flashbacks to early times.