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Snow Falling On Cedars by David Guterson

The novel Snow Falling On Cedars by David Guterson is set on the fictional small island of San Piedro. The first chapter opens in a courtroom in the island’s only town of Amity Harbour at the murder trial of Carl Heine. This chapter gives insight into the ways of the island and its inhabitants, including the three main characters- Kabuo, Ishmael and Hatsue. In this essay, I will discuss how Guterson establishes plot, character and setting. The story opens with the accused man Kabuo. It is immediately obvious that he has a strong character: ‘Kabuo showed nothing- not even a flicker of the eyes.’ The stress of being accused of murder has not visibly affected him. This may be a sign of his confidence; he knows he has nothing to be guilty of. It may also be due to his high sense of pride- he doesn’t like to show weakness and therefore remains detached.

With the narrator’s help, however, the readers get a view into his thoughts. ‘he realized now.’ Through this use of localization, the reader learns a little about his thoughts. ‘furious wind-whipped flakes against the windows- struck him as infinitely beautiful.’ This highlights that he can appreciate nature, but there is also a slight indication of anger. The snow may also serve as a metaphor- the fact he cannot feel or touch this beauty represents his isolation from the community because he is an accused man and perhaps (as we later find out) because he is Japanese. Ishmael is the local reporter and a native of the island. He is known to both Kabuo and his wife, Hatsue. From each of the relationships, it is clear he is a caring person. For example, when talking about the reporters, the narrator says, ‘Ishmael a native did not want to be like them.’

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He then continues to say, ‘Kabuo was someone he knew, somebody he’d gone to school with.’ This is done through the use of focalization in which the reader knows Ishmael’s thoughts. It is also apparent from the incident between Ishmael and Hatsue that they know each other as he asks, ‘Are you all right?’ The information here is displayed by Guterson through dialogue. This chapter hints that Ishmael has had a troubled past. ‘with the eyes of a war veteran.’ He has obviously fought in combat. Ishmael also sees the snow as a way to bring the purity ‘he remembered so fondly from youth.’ Together both indicate that he has had a bad experience and misses the simplicity and perhaps more from youth. In this chapter, the reader learns little about Hatsue. The most significant is of history with Ishmael. Hatsue’s reply ‘Go away’ indicates that she doesn’t want his attention during his attempted conversation.

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It could be suggested it is because he is a reporter, but it is likely to be due to something in the past (perhaps to do with her husband as her full name is used after the quote.) This dialogue helps us understand a little more in-depth, and again, focalization is used to show the reader how the character feels. The only other significant information the readers of this chapter acquire of Hatsue is a hint at emotional state. ‘how rigorously her had been woven into a black knot against the nape of her neck.’ This indicates that she may be both angry and anxious about her husband’s trial. This is another point taken from a focalization of Ishmael. The history of the island is briefly summarised to show how significant the trial is. ‘San Piedro generally lay clear of violence after that.’ The island is not used to something as large as this, and therefore, everyone is interested- especially in making their own opinions, much like the reader is encouraged to do.

This is especially true as Guterson gives away nothing to whether Kabuo is guilty or not. The readers get a variety of images from the descriptions given by Guterson. Amity Harbour is the first portrayal we are given. The image of this is negative. ‘wind-beaten sea village, downtrodden and mildewed.’ The phrases are used to create the likeness of a very bland, miserable and unlikeable place. This is done by using the senses to create a strong image. For example, ‘the boards of its buildings bleached and weathered.’ As this is an islands only town, the reader expects everything to be so negative. However, San Piedro is described surprisingly positively, as portrayed by the quote ‘San Piedro had too a brand of verdant beauty.’ The imagery created is of an idyllic and beautiful place. Full of rich colours, pleasant smells and harmony. This contrast suggests that the natural world is much more pleasant than the harsh human environment. This is likely to be significant to the plot.

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Guterson portrays these conflicting images through the effective use of various literary techniques. For example, his use of alliteration ‘smooth stones and seafoam.’ The emphasis on the ‘s’ sound reminds the reader of flowing water. The senses are also used very efficiently to create a 3D image. This is done through various terms, including ‘roared,’ ‘battered,’ and ‘rusted dull orange.’ The combination of various textures paints a more detailed and believable picture. From this chapter, the reader can establish a little about the main plot. Firstly where it is set- ‘ San Piedro was an island of…’ Secondly, the main characters- Kabuo, Hatsue and Ishmael. This is made apparent from the focalizations by the narrator. Finally, a murder trial is taking place ‘suggested nothing of the carnival atmosphere sometimes found at country murder trials.’ Each of these points is established through the use of the omniscient narrator.

Guterson uses various language techniques, including alliteration, personification and imagery, especially to describe the setting. His technique of providing fictional information, masquerading as fact, is used to explain the island’s history, but ultimately it is all communicated through the omniscient narrator. The narrator also allows us to find out how each character is feeling at specific moments, helping us learn about them through focalization. This is highly significant to the plot as it allows the readers to get a “bird’s eye perspective” of what’s going on – we’re given all of the information from all sources. This, therefore, means we can piece together the information to imagine the scene without a biased and incomplete perspective. So in overview, it is apparent that Guterson uses a variety of means and devices to illustrate and convey character, setting and plot in the early pages. This is particularly necessary when seeking to engage the reader’s imagination and curiosity, whether to heighten the enjoyment of the read or finish the novel.

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Snow Falling On Cedars by David Guterson. (2021, Aug 13). Retrieved December 1, 2022, from