Snow Falling on Cedars

Snow Falling on Cedars Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4-6

Judge Fielding calls for a recess, and the bailiff, Ed Soames, leads the jurors out of the courtroom. The narrative flashes back to the morning of September 16, from Ishmael's point of view. After hearing about Carl's death, Ishmael contacts the coroner, Horace Whaley, to confirm the news. Musing about how Ishmael and Carl had gone to high school together and played on the football team, graduating the same year, Ishmael's thoughts drift to Carl and his wife, a pair from common German stock. As he walks past the seasonal tourists, Ishmael's thoughts next drift toward the possibility of living elsewhere. After the war, at 23, he had lived in Seattle, gone to college, and taken an American literature course. But in the end he decided journalism would make for a better living.

Ishmael's father, Arthur, had founded a four-page weekly called the San Piedro Review. Following his work as a logger, Arthur discovered his passion for the principles of journalism, assuring that each printed item was "morally meticulous." Businessmen had even tried to convince him to run for the Washington state legislature, but he had refused. Remembering his father, Ishmael's thoughts shift toward how everything has changed with the war. He is unhappy now: over thirty, unmarried, with only one arm. In his discontent, he recalls how his mother once said that his father had "loved humankind dearly and with all his heart, but he disliked most human beings" (27). Ishmael, in her view, was very much his father's son.

On the morning of September 16, Ishmael sees Art asking the fishermen on the docks who had been out at sea with Carl. They mention that The Islander, the boat belonging to Kabuo Miyamoto, had been fishing nearby. Art privately takes Ishmael aside, asking him to refrain from publicizing the investigation; he doesn't want the suspect to be too much on his guard. Ishmael agrees.

As the narrative cuts back to the trial, Alvin Hooks questions his next witness. Horace Whaley, the coroner, who had initially been an ordinary family physician, assumed the role of coroner when nobody else was willing to do it. Horace testifies that Carl's pocket watch had stopped at 1:47 am, and he notes that the body had been salmon-pink from its night in the cold water. (In the privacy of Horace's mind, the reader learns that Carl's physical stature, a great specimen of manhood, had made people naturally mistrust him. He had no friends to speak of, but he was a good fisherman. The war had changed everything, especially the men.) Upon examining the body, Horace concluded that Carl had gone into the water breathing, given the telltale red foam in Carl's mouth. The wound on the side of Carl head seemed, to Horace, to have been made by a flat, narrow object about two inches wide, not unlike the kind of wound Horace had seen made in combat with a kendo stick. (Kendo was an activity generally taught to Japanese boys.) Art and Abel arrived as Horace had peeled the face of the dead man back to study the wound more closely. Horace and Art both agreed that there was something suspicious about the wound.

At the trial, Nels asks Horace to repeat that the death had been by drowning. The red foam in the mouth establishes this fact "beyond doubt," Horace agrees, elaborating that the foam began forming in the early stages of the victim's struggle in the water. Pressure on the lungs, along with a combination of water, mucus, and air, causes the foam to appear, usually a short while after drowning. Nels further establishes doubt regarding the cause of the wound to the side of the head: perhaps it was due to the gunnel of a boat or a net roller. Horace agrees about the possibility, but he thinks it unlikely. Still, the key point for the defense is that Carl drowned.

The narrative refocuses on Art, who watches Horace from the audience. He recalls having gone to Susan Marie and given her the bad news. He had always noticed her in church: she was 28 and attractive. Upon his arrival at her home, however, she had fallen into quite a different state, sinking onto the bottom stair to say emptily, "I knew this would happen one day" (56).


The narrative gradually deepens our understanding of each character, usually through the recollections of other characters and personal flashback. Ishmael, for instance, offers the reader a better sense of who Carl had been, also establishing how he, Carl, and Kabuo had all gone to high school at the same time. The novel hereby indicates that it will structure time between a shared youth and maturity, the past and the present trial. Ishmael, Carl, and Kabuo will each be shown in their youth, along with the influences of each of their parents. In maturity, the extent to which each of these characters comes to reflect the qualities of their parents crucially determines the events that take place. In other words, a central shaping factor of identity and action is one's generational inheritance, what is passed from parents to children.

The novel also introduces the structural division between earth and sea with special regard to vocation. The island, according to the narrative, breathes by the salmon, but, at the same time, it relies on the strawberry farms and the cannery. Both Carl and Kabuo are fishermen, but they would prefer to be strawberry farmers, not because one vocation is better than the other, but because both men had grown up on farms. Fishing presents the solitary image of the "silent-toiling, autonomous gill-netter" as the "collective image of the good man" in the community (29). At the same time, Kabuo struggles with the work. The extent to which Kabuo shares in the "fraternity of fishermen" is brought into question as Art questions the fishermen: they refer to him as "a Jap," the derogatory term used for residents of Japanese ancestry. The narrative also highlights the fact that Carl too had been set apart from the "fraternity," although this separation seems to have been more due to his own choice. He is, additionally, of German stock, though the men exhibit no particularly derogative reaction toward this ethnicity. Their greater toleration of Carl than of Kabuo indicates the general U.S. reaction to Japanese residents during the war. While the United States was at war against both Germany and Japan (as well as Italy), only the residents with Japanese ancestry were relocated into camps.

Ishmael's characterization deepens through discussion of his father Arthur, who had founded the island newspaper. Arthur had been a good man, committed to the social good, and an idealist; he spoke powerfully to the responsibility of the island community to reject prejudice against its own residents. In rejecting involvement in politics, he signals a refusal to compromise his sense of moral direction, feeling perhaps that he can do more good for his community as a voice of conscience.

Whether Ishmael becomes like his father remains to be seen, though we know Ishmael has already taken over the paper. He disliked literature as a profession in that it was not practical as a way to make a living, but evidently he enjoyed judging the books and their characters. With an honest eye, Ishmael empathized with Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter, who he felt had been unjustly punished by her community. His judgment foreshadows Ishmael's present role in Guterson's narrative, and it reveals, to a certain degree, how novels themselves can help shape one's conscience. Ishmael's father had also been an avid reader; he had educated himself this way. Snow Falling on Cedars seems to aspire to the same endeavor, providing literature as something other than a way to make a living: it serves to educate.

The witnesses Art, Abel, and Horace Whaley, as they relate the investigation surrounding Carl's death, are sympathetic and well drawn. Their suspicions regarding the wound to Carl's head seem reasonable, even to the reader. The power of prejudice, however, is that the observer often succumbs to the idea that a negative judgment is well reasoned or "rational." Arthur, in fact, refers to prejudice in the midst of wartime hysteria as "madness."