Ishmael’s Story: A Fragmented Bildungsroman
In David Guterson’s award-winning 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars, the story centers around the murder trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, using the testimony as a vehicle to tell a multigenerational story about the island’s fraught history from the perspective of many different characters. With each testimony and flashback, the reader gets a small, fractured piece of each character’s identity and personal history that they must stitch together to create a holistic profile of the character. For some, the sum of these pieces is large, painting a thorough picture of the character’s identity and growth. For others, the reader are given mere wisps of information. Throughout the book, the character who gets arguably the most time and development dedicated to his story is a figure whose connection to the trial, at least at the beginning, seems merely tangential: Ishmael Chambers, the reporter. Through fragmented pieces of testimony, flashback, and dialogue, Gutterson tells a rich, holistic, and arcing story of Ishmael’s coming-of-age from ten years old to his mid-thirties. In this way, the novel becomes a sort of fragmented bildungsroman about Ishmael and his eternal quest to “recognize his place in the world” (Howe). Though Ishmael gets his full story told, it is by no means the novel’s only story — different from usual coming-of-age stories which tend to focus on the linear development of a single character. Instead, Guterson integrates Ishmael’s bildungsroman into the drama of the trial and mingles it with many other stories, showing that everyone’s journey — however personal or individualistic it may be — is ultimately connected to everyone else’s and it’s stakes often reach far beyond our own stories.
Traditionally, a bildungsroman novels focuses on the linear development of character’s moral, intellectual, and psychological selves as they come to “recognize their place in the world” (Howe). However, Guterson chooses to introduce Ishmael towards the end of his trajectory — at a time when he seems bitterly, but ambiguously rejecting of any community as his “place” — and instead works (somewhat-sporadically) backwards, detailing Ishmael’s cyclical uptake and loss of community and place in the world. As readers, we are first introduced to Ishmael in his reprised role as a journalist, one he has inherited from his father. Within his hometown, doing his father’s job, Ishmael finds comfort in the protective, secluded unity of Amity Harbor — a place where he could be “one of them.” However, Ishmael still seems to carry a nagging sense of dissatisfaction, constantly reminded that San Piedro is not “where he wants to be” and perturbed by feelings of exclusion from the fisherman-camaraderie that exists for most other men on the island. The origins of this placelessness seem originally ambiguous but gain clarity with the first revelation (or rather, more detailed description) about Ishmael’s past: he is a veteran. Drawing back into the past, Guterson blames Ishmael’s inability to “emulate his father” or find “his place” within the community of journalists “on this matter of the war—this matter of the arm he’d lost.” In doing so, however, Guterson ironically places Ishmael in his first (or last, if we are thinking chronologically) community, one of veterans, even if it is a community defined by “disturbed…cynicism” and the sense of something missing.
After moving backwards into the past order to give the reader a shallow understanding of Ishmael’s bitter origins, Guterson switches tacts and starts from the beginning: ten year old Ishmael meeting ten year old Hatsue. Here is where the bildungsroman truly begins to take shape. Classically, these coming-of-age stories feature their main character as stuck within an “unbending social order” and mark the developmental spark of a character’s internal conflict, usually regarding their decision to strive against these constructs (Howe). Bonding with Hatsue over their shared love of the ocean, Ishmael timidly pushes the boundaries of the island’s tense race-relations and feels “a knot of pressure building inside him” — the brewing conflict between his growing love for Hatsue and “the judgments enforced by the [island’s] unbending social order” that separate the Japanese from the white people (Howe). In a decision that could be called his bildungsroman Call (an action against the social order that spurs the character on their journey towards spiritual or psychological growth), Ishmael kisses Hatsue and “decides then that he would love her forever no matter what came to pass..despite [his worry] that this kiss was wrong.” This decision marks the beginning of a long romance between the two, at once childishly “gentle” and dangerously clandestine. Inside of their cedar tree, Ishmael finds his first “place in the world.” Despite the rebellious, intense nature of Ishmael’s relationship with Hatsue, however, this period of time functions less as the maturation stage of Ishmael’s Bildungsroman and more as an extension of his “hero’s call.” Unlike Hatsue, Ishmael remains naively ignorant of the true impracticality of their relationship and instead enshrines it with an immature sense of romantic, beautiful rebellion.
As a result of this idealism, when Hatsue is forced into the internment camps and ends her relationship with Ishmael, he is met with bitter, profound disappointment that sets him on a new path of heightened emotional complexity (another common characteristic of bildungsroman novels). This moment serves as a turning point for Ishmael into a stage of long-suffering “maturation,” characterized by a sense of internal anguish as he attempts reconcile his love for Hatsue and his resentment of her, his desire to live up to his father’s journalistic integrity and his desire to be angry, his belief in universal unfairness and in personal responsibility. Joining the army and losing his arm (an event that he indirectly blames Hatsue for, curing “that Jap bitch”), begging a married-Hatsue to “hold him,” and failing to survive school in seattle, Ishmael evolves into the bitter, morally ambiguous person we meet in the beginning of the novel. Now, however, the reader understands that the war is not the cause of Ishmael’s internal unrest. Hatsue is. His missing arm is but an emblem for his missing love. Neither protestants nor advice swaying Ishmael from this state, it seems that he would anguish away in this state of emotional limbo had it not been for the information he discovered proving Kabuo’s innocence. This discovery serves as a pivotal moment in Ishmael’s bildungsroman, forcing him to decide once and for all whether to scorn Hatsue or save her. Ultimately, spurred on by a reminder of Hatsue’s former love and faith in his “large…heart,” Ishmael cycles back to his Call stage and chooses to be the romantic,rebel, hero he built himself up as once again. This time, though, it comes not from a naive belief that he can be with Hatsue, but from a genuine desire to be the “gentle and kind” person “who will do great things,” for Hatsue, for his father, and (finally) for himself.
Focusing on Ishmael, it is easy to become swept up in his rich and dynamic character arch, seeing every other relationship and event in the novel as somehow a tangential component of this central story. Ultimately, however, Guterson’s choice to include such a well-developed bildungsroman within the larger vignette-style narrative of the trial serves an important point: Ishmael’s coming of age — though deeply-personal and largely an internal shift — affects everyone around him. Traditionally, bildungsromans and hero-epics follow a single character, focusing on how their choices affect their own trajectory. Little is said about what they leave in their wakes. In Ishmael’s case, however, his pivotal decision to hand in the information is not just a moment of personal revelation but a choice that can, quite literally, determine whether another man lives or dies. For every moment we watch Ishmael pine over Hatsue, we see her embroiled in her own internal conflict of shame, confusion, and conflicting cultural expectations that he seems entirely ignorant of. As Ishmael vacillates between a racist hatred for the Japanese and an simultaneous urge to defend them, we watch San Piedro’s Japanese population struggle to navigate these same blurred lines. This ironically becomes Ishmael’s primary character flaw and source of his immaturity: he sees his life as a bildungsroman. Within this mindset, he allows himself to make decisions out of hatred, unrequited love, and desperation — as though these choices are mere building blocks of personal development — and fails, time and again, to see the implications these choices have on the people around him.
In his sweeping novel Snow Falling On Cedars, which spans generations and shares the often conflicting stories many different characters, Guterson paints an intimate and detailed picture of San Piedro Island and it’s fraught history. Among each of the narrative’s given for each of the characters, Ishmael’s story stands out. It is both longer and more detailed than the rest (except maybe for Hatsue’s) and unlike any of the other narratives, it details dynamic and powerful character growth. As Ishmael grows from a naive, idealist young boy into a bitter, conflicted man and finally, in the end, into a more balanced, mature, and fulfilled person, his story takes on the trajectory of a bildungsroman. However, unlike the traditional coming-of-age novel in which the focus remains fixed on its main character, Snow Falling on Cedars explores the impact Ishmael’s internal story has on the world around him. Ultimately, it demonstrates that no matter how individualistic, how solipsistic our personal journeys may seem, they are inevitably entangled within the stories of everyone around us.
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In David Guterson’s award-winning 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars, the story centers around the murder trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, using the testimony as a vehicle to tell a multigenerational […]