English Conflicting Perspectives

hemes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Struggle Between Free Will and Chance

Guterson uses words such as mystery, fate, accident, happenstance, and coincidence to describe the inhuman, uncontrollable, and unknowable forces that govern the universe. Indeed, many events in the world of Snow Falling on Cedars simply happen, causelessly and unpredictably. Carl Heine dies because a freighter happens to pass by his boat at the exact time that he is atop his mast, at his most vulnerable. Ishmael happens to survive the storming of Betio while almost everyone else in his platoon dies. The lighthouse radioman, who would have been able to prove that Kabuo was innocent of murdering Carl, happens to be transferred out of San Piedro the morning after Carl’s death.

These events, like the motions of the storm and the sea, happen for no reason and without human control. The characters in the novel continuously struggle to exert their own will against such impersonal and random forces. This struggle sometimes entails learning to accept what they cannot change: Ishmael, for instance, must accept that his arm has been lost in the war and that Hatsue does not love him. Sometimes, however, circumstances that appear inevitable and unchangeable—prejudice or war, for example—are the result of human action. Guterson suggests that people can and should act to resist these things. Nels decries prejudice in the courtroom, and Arthur does the same in his newspaper. Kabuo assists Carl in an emergency despite having every reason to disregard him. The challenge facing people, Guterson suggests, is learning to recognize the difference between what is human and therefore changeable and what is inhuman and therefore unchangeable. Drawing on love, compassion, courage, reason, and forgiveness, individuals and societies can and must decide as much of their own fate as they can.

The Cyclical Nature of Prejudice...