Snow Falling on Cedars

Snow Falling on Cedars Summary and Analysis of Chapters 27-32

As the actual events of the night in question promise to unfold at the trial, Katsuo spends a cold night in his cell and remembers how he had told Art, and later Nels, that he had not been anywhere near Carl on the night of his death. Nels, however, had confronted him with the police report and the evidence of blood on the mooring line. Kabuo confessed that he did not think anyone would believe him anyway. He was Japanese. Nels said he should have some faith in the system: the law applies equally to all men. He could, at the very least, count on a fair trial. Kabuo replied, "The truth isn't easy" (294).

On the witness stand, Kabuo now tells the court that they were fishing in a blind fog: "ghost time." He had heard the sound of a fog-horn nearby, and Carl's voice followed it, calling out that he was "dead in the water," or that his batteries had gone dead. Kabuo drew near and said he would share. They tied their boats together, and Kabuo observed that Carl had hung his lantern high on the mast. Kabuo had D-6 engines, but Carl's ran on D-8s. Carl managed to make the extra D-6 fit with a fishing gaff, but he had cut his hand in the process. Afterwards, Carl himself slowly raised the matter of the seven acres. Suddenly, he apologized for everything, for his mother, for how the whole business had come about. They looked at each other, and Carl commented that Kabuo was Japanese. Kabuo spit back that he hated Germans, some of whom he had killed during the war. Quickly, however, their mutual war-driven anger fizzled. Carl strangely revealed to him that his mother had asked him, long ago, just prior to the relocation, to return Kabuo's bamboo fishing rod. He had disobeyed and kept the rod for himself. Kabuo said it didn't matter; it was a gift, and he had meant for Carl to keep it. After a pause, Carl told him he would take $1,200 for each of the seven acres; this was the same price he was paying Ole. They shook hands and agreed to sign papers the next day.

In the cross-examination, Alvin Hooks asks the same question he posed to Hatsue: why had Kabuo not come forward with the truth sooner? Why had he lied for so long? He also asks what had possessed Kabuo to put a new battery into his boat. Kabuo replies that he had a spare in his shed. Hooks reacts by pointing to his impassive expression--the poker face--and says, slyly, that it is not a face that can be trusted. The judge angrily admonishes him for his prejudiced comment.

During the closing arguments, Alvin Hooks presents his version of the case and Nels offers another view. Eloquently, Nels states he that he has grown old and that, in facing death, he wants to share a few words: "What I see is again and again the same sad human frailty. We hate one another; we are victims of irrational fears. And there is nothing in the stream of human history to suggest we are going to change this" (315). The judge, worried that he might not have done his job as well as he ought to have done, carefully gives the jury its instructions, with particular regard for the law. The jury must determine Kabuo's guilt or innocence on the charge of murder in the first degree. This is a charge, he states, which requires premeditation or planned intent. They must agree, should they find Kabuo guilty, using a standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt." He reiterates to the jury that they each were selected in the belief that they would deliberate carefully and would fairly consider the evidence in light of all competing views. By three in the afternoon, the jury files out to deliberate.

While the jury is deliberating, Ishmael considers what Nels said during the closing arguments. Nels asked the jurors to put the war behind them, to set aside prejudice. It had been ten years, after all. But Ishmael cannot imagine ever letting it go. He looks up and sees Hatsue. Nels walks to his side and says how much he has always admired his father Arthur, as well as his mother Helen. Hatsue implores Ishmael to do something with the paper, to make it speak, to defend them in the way that his father would have done.

The day comes to an end without a verdict. The narrative reveals that Alexander Van Ness, a boat builder who conscientiously takes the judge's instructions to heart, cannot rid himself of his doubt. The rest of the jurors, exasperated, are ready to convict.

Ishmael visits his mother again and finds her reading and soon ready to turn in to bed. Ishmael mulls over Miholland's notes from the lighthouse and, as he glances over his father's bookshelves, he remembers how his father had come to believe that the world had its limits, its gray areas. Mr. Fukida, he suddenly remembers, an old Japanese farmer, exchanged good wishes with his father when Ishmael was still a boy. Mr. Fukida smiled and said that they all knew his son was just like him, good at heart. Ishmael, remembering this, becomes sorrowful. He thinks about having done nothing great in the world and considers, next, what he ought to do.

That night, he goes to Hatsue. Quickly, he explains to her the lighthouse notes written in shorthand. She seems to understand why he has waited this long. He asks her if, as she grows older, she might not save a part of her memory for him. She says yes, of course she will. But she presses him to let her go. She echoes what his mother advised: go and marry, have children, live.

Early the next morning, Hatsue arrives at Ishmael's mother's home to tell him that she remembers something from Kabuo's testimony. He mentioned a lantern Carl had hung high on the mast as part of his emergency measures. Could they find it? Together, they go to see the boat and Art and Abel. Abel climbs the mast to check and, though he does not find the lantern, he discovers signs of blood and hairs. Art says he will have Horace check the hairs immediately. By ten in the morning, Judge Fielding dismisses the jurors from their duties, directing the verdict. In light of the new evidence, Kabuo is free to go.

As the narrative draws to a close, Ishmael sits to the write the truthful account of what happened to Carl on the night of the fog. He imagines how Carl heard the horn of the freighter and, preparing for the wake, climbed quickly to take the lantern down, with the fastidiousness he had inherited from his mother. The action had been ill-timed, and the wall of water slammed into his boat. The top of the mast struck his head as he sank into the water and tangled in his own net.

The narrative concludes with Ishmael reaching the realization that the human heart is never fully knowable; it is a mystery. Yet, separately, it somehow has a will; in a sense it suffers no accidents. The novel concludes with the thought that "accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart" (345).


When Kabuo takes the stand to tell the truth of the story, he offers an account of resolution to the conflict Etta had incited by selling the seven acres in question. He explains that Carl's engine had died and that Carl had been "dead in the water," an expression that echoes ominously against the knowledge of Carl's subsequent drowning. After Kabuo had offered him one of his engines, a D-6, Carl had forced the engine to fit, in an action which symbolizes something of Carl's own psychology: he had forced Kabuo to fit into his life in such a way that the two of them could function in harmony. In his decision to sell Kabuo the same disputed seven acres of land, he once again allows for the possibility of their futures being linked, as they resume their lives as neighbors.

The gift of the bamboo fishing pole observed early on in the narrative returns now with new significance. Carl reveals that he did not follow his mother's order to return the gift; instead, he kept it and made good use of it. The action indicates that Carl is capable of defying his mother, though it is somewhat unclear whether Carl kept the gift out of greed or selfishness or because he valued it as a gift from Kabuo. For Kabuo, however, there is no difference. It was a gift, and he had meant for Carl to keep it. After coming clean with his revelation, Carl offers to sell Kabuo the seven acres. For Carl, the decision proves to be the action of his father's son--though, when he names a high price for each acre, the reader is thrown briefly into doubt. Nevertheless, this is the same price for which he is buying the land from Ole; in other words, it is a fair price. In this way, he proves to be less of the greedy type his mother exhibits and more of his father's type.

Carl and Kabuo have experienced the war similarly. While they briefly conflict in a heated way, the moment speaks to a commonality in their experience during the war. Carl says he is no longer the same man, and Kabuo says that the blood of men never washes from his heart. They understand each other perfectly, beneath their temporary anger. This common understanding is something they have not reached and perhaps cannot reach with their spouses, and it reinforces the idea of a persisting brotherhood between the two.

As the defense concludes its case and the prosecutor draws attention to Kabuo's face, we again consider the theme of what can be read in a face. Art had felt that he could not read the truth in Kabuo's face, although readers knew that Kabuo had been taught that by concealing one's emotions, the strength of one's true character comes to light. Thus, this moment at the end of the trial highlights once again the continuing cultural misunderstanding between the Japanese and the white Americans, who are unfamiliar with many aspects of Japanese heritage. The prosecutor reinforces such a misunderstanding so as to color the jury's preconceptions and stir their prejudices.

After the closing statements, the reader, now well aware of the truth, waits to observe how the various characters will act. The jury, on the one hand, is instructed carefully to follow the standards of the law, but will they be able to decide guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt" in a fair manner? That the majority of the jury, save one, is ready to convict speaks pessimistically of the justice system in that context. At the same time, that there is one man who asserts a real and reasonable doubt gives us reason to hope, and the justice system ultimately does save Kabuo.

In the end, though, it is Ishmael who makes the decision that determines Kabuo's fate. Moreover, by showing the records from the lighthouse to Hatsue, he comes to terms with his love for her. She recognizes what he probably felt, and she is glad that he made the decision to come forward with the truth--although, in her view, because she has always known him to have a good heart, his choice was inevitable.

Hence, Ishmael proves to be his father's son and proves to be "morally meticulous" in his actions. He proves the Japanese farmer Mr. Fukida correct in his conclusion, as well as Hatsue's and his mother's. He accepts his inheritance.

The next morning, with the assistance of Art and Abel, when new evidence comes to light and the nature of Carl's accident at sea becomes increasingly clear, this new clarity leads the way to the truth. Art, Abel and Horace Whaley do not seek to condemn an innocent man. From the beginning, they followed what they believed were reasonable conclusions, given the evidence. Now, from the moment new evidence points the story another way, they are content to change their mind.

Thus Kabuo is freed. When Ishmael sits to the write the truth of Carl's death, he commits himself to the responsibility of father's role, as well as to the principles of journalism. He writes the truth, to the best of his knowledge. The death was an accident; fortune intervened. That so many lives have been affected by the death shows how closely linked the entire community really is.

Note also that Carl's motion to take the lantern down from the mast is reminiscent of his mother's fastidiousness, a detail that stamps a judgment on Etta more generally. Just as her own actions had affected the lives and fates of many, a characteristic she passed on to her son indirectly results in her son's death.

The novel concludes with two summations. First, human hearts are not knowable. An individual, unlike all others, must have a separate and unique experience. Thus, another's motivations and pains can never be fully known or understood or communicated. Second, "accident" rules the universe. In contrast to the human heart, which is driven for better or worse by individual will, decision, and action, a person also is buffeted by the winds of fortune and accident. Environmental and contextual pressures interact with each person's life; each person is not fully separate but lives in a community.

Faith in goodness may lie best with the human heart, despite a person's own self-divisions. The "chambers" of the human heart echo directly with Ishmael's surname and the judge's "chambers," along with the chamber within the cedar tree. In each of these places, through the course of the novel, despite ups and downs, love and good conscience have ultimately governed.