The inference of silence is responsible for a whole new mechanism of thinking within established structures and relationships, and perhaps, within the structure of a new way of understanding things. In Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson addresses the inauspicious theme of silence through his complex cast of characters, especially between the relationship of Ishmael Chambers and Hatsue Miyamoto, for whom silence heightens emotions as well as tension. In this novel, Guterson reminds us that, as a society, we can sometimes be misled by silence, and we sometimes take great pains to relate in detail the things we do not say. Due to the limitless interpretations of silence and all that silence can imply, Hatsue’s consistent silent tendencies toward Ishmael allow him to be misled into believing that she truly loved him. The silence is later seen in Ishmael, who is upset because his relationship with Hatsue ends unpleasantly, and so he keeps a piece of information silent that would enable Hatsue’s husband, Kabuo, to be liberated. Some would label Ishmael as a disturbed man who is obsessed with Hatsue, but it is later seen that he comes to his senses and breaks the silent tendencies in the book that improves adverse situations. Silence can sometimes stifle the projection of how people truly feel. Perhaps when silence is finally broken, there can be relationships in a society where there is more compassion than anguish, and that in turn can lead to the liberation of injustices in society.
In this novel, Guterson shows that in the early to mid 1900s, first-generation Japanese-Americans were born into an era in America where their freedom of choosing what to do and what to say were very limited. America, at the time, was a place where there were many Japanese immigrants who, by their silent nature, were not always willing to openly express themselves and what they desired. The Japanese immigrants grew up in their native country learning to contain their opinions. Newborn Japanese-American children
in America then, were taught the ways of the old Japanese culture. Hatsue Miyamoto, like many other first-generation Japanese-American female children, was raised to be what was expected of a proper Japanese girl. “Her parents had sent Hatsue to Mrs. Shigemura with the intent that the girl would not forget that she was first and foremost Japanese,” and she would be told to “stay away from white men” (84) because it was not accepted in American society back then. Mr. Shigemura also told her that “her stillness,” meaning silence, “would serve her well” (84). Her mother would reinforce this and continue to tell her “Still you should learn to say nothing that will cause you regret. You should not say what is not in your heart-or what is only in your heart for a moment. But you know this-silence is better” (201).
Hatsue was a very obedient daughter who listened well to her mother, and at times, her upbringing would reveal itself in her relationship with Ishmael. Her silence would emerge throughout the course of the novel, and for Ishmael, he felt that Hatsue was keeping her heart concealed, which was the cause of his constant calamity. At first, it was the “detached part of her, the part she kept to herself,” that, “had begun to interest him deeply” (98). But this would trouble him further down their relationship, for it was this detached part of Hatsue that seemed to give Ishmael more grief than anything else. There would be times when Ishmael would speak but Hatsue would only answer in silence. “It was like Hatsue not to answer.” Ishmael himself, “was always in need of words, even when he couldn’t quite muster them,” but it seemed that Hatsue was “capable of a brand of silence he couldn’t feel inside” (111). Even when Ishmael had enough courage to begin to speak and pry into what he thought Hatsue was concealing, she would only give him an answer to his worries equally less satisfying. Hatsue would tell him that “her emotional reserve was something she couldn’t help. She had been carefully trained by her upbringing, she said, to avoid effusive displays of feeling” (171-172). Ishmael continued to “worry about it perpetually” (172) because he still could not
read into what her silence was saying. He could not fully understand how and what she was felt, so it displeased him because he could not reach her in the way that he wished to. His blindness was caused by his devotion to love her and his decision that “he would love her forever no matter what came to pass” (100).
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There were even times when she gave him signs of doubt. She would constantly tell him that “it made her unhappy to deceive the world.” Hatsue’s silence toward Ishmael was a suggestion that she did not truly love him as he did her. She had deceived him in the way that she feels she has deceived society as well as her family. “Her secret life, which she carried with her in the presence of her parents and sisters at every moment, made her feel that she had betrayed them in a way that was nothing less than evil-there was no other word for it” (175). Even when she states, “I lie every day to my family. Sometimes I think I’ll go crazy with it. Sometimes I think this can’t go on” (175), Ishmael still fails to get any hints. He continued to love her despite the forced silence that they must carry on in front of their family as well as society. Hatsue, who does not make things absolutely clear that she does not love him until later on, is continually unhappy and allows Ishmael’s feelings to continue to blossom. This silence that she puts onto Ishmael and her family continues for a while and permits erroneous room for growth and takes the situation to a new level where emotions run much deeper.
Ishmael sees that everything is right and that their relationship can go on and flower into something beautiful. It is not until the silence of their relationship that is revealed by Hatsue’s family, that the relationship is discontinued. Hatsue’s mother discovers much of has occurred in the relationship from a letter. Her mother gives Hatsue a talk, Hatsue realizes that she has flawed, and she ends the relationship with a letter to Ishmael, telling him, “I don’t love you, Ishmael . . . I knew with certainty that everything was wrong. I knew we could never be right together” (442). She always knew of this yet failed to clearly let Ishmael clearly know. Even with consoling words such at the end of the letter
such as “I wish you the very best, Ishmael. Your heart is large and you are gentle and kind, and I know you will do great things in this world, but now I must say good-bye to you” (442), it does not fail to rip his heart apart.
Because Hatsue allowed such a relationship to develop and allow Ishmael’s feelings to grow so deep, he spawns an unmoral justification of hatred toward her and the Japanese.
“He said that his numbness was a terrible thing, he didn’t feel anything except that he looked forward to killing as many Japs as possible, he was angry at them and wanted their deaths-all of them, he wrote; he felt hatred. He explained to her the nature of his hatred and told her she was as responsible for it as anyone in the world. In fact, he hated her now” (237).
The abrupt breakage of silence from Hatsue to Ishmael caused a very rapid and traumatic shift in Ishmael’s being. He was a broken man, with a broken heart, feeling heartless and cruel toward Hatsue and her culture. From the point of their breakup and on, they had a deteriorated relationship. The silence transcends and they could not even bear to see each other later in the future. “When he saw her, as he sometimes did, in the aisles of Petersen’s Grocery or on the street in Amity Harbor, he turned away from seeing her with just a little less hurry than she turned away from seeing him; they avoided one another rigorously” (324).
This “silent treatment” towards one another is understandable but certainly not healthy. Silence can play a terrible role between two people as it has for Ishmael and Hatsue. The continual silence even after their romantic relationship ended can easily corrode any possibility of a friendship, leaving situations questionable, for who knows what else could occur.
Ishmael later discovers something that could free Hatsue’s husband from being sent to prison. He keeps this information to himself, unwilling to tell anyone-unrevealed, hidden and silent. “The truth now lay in Ishmael’s own pocket and he did not know what
to do with it. He did not know how to conduct himself and the recklessness he felt about everything . . .” (428). He may have kept this secret to himself because he was a destroyed war veteran, who went to war obliterating things. He would see that “destruction could be beautiful.” He was feeling reckless with the piece of information in his hands, because keeping it silent would destroy the lives of Hatsue and Kabuo. “What he felt was the chilly recklessness that had come to waylay his heart.” The cause of his recklessness was because “for twelve years he knew, he had waited” for Hatsue, “he had waited without knowing he was waiting at all, and the waiting had turned into something deeper. He’d been waiting for twelve long years.”
It takes Ishmael a while to realize that it would be wrong to keep to himself any information leading to Kabuo’s freedom. He would later see that Hatsue “once admired him,” and that, “there was something in him she was grateful for even if she could not love him” (442).So instead of being destructive of himself and of the Miyamoto’s lives, he breaks his silence and makes things right. The breakdown of his silence was his own self-revelation. Things could not have possibly been any better than they were if he had remained silent and left things as so. It was only the moment after he broke his silence that Hatsue would begin to speak with him again. Things were set right. It is likely that Ishmael and Hatsue can now speak to each other on good terms, and justice was brought about as Hatsue’s husband was set free from any accusations.