Questions of Judgment and Moral
Questions of judgment and moral conduct permeate the novel Snow Falling on Cedars. The manner in which these questions pervade the novel is achieved by the combination of fact with speculative imagination, the character portrayal of the main characters, the underlying themes, the setting and the plot of the novel. The author demonstrates that fear, ignorance and prejudice can interfere with the judgment and morality of even the professional members of a community where racism is prevalent and who allow their prejudices to dictate their decision making. He also demonstrates that some members of the community have the compassion, strength of character, courage and integrity to overcome the effects of racism.
One example of poor judgment and immoral conduct is the local coroner's, Horace Whaley's, implication that a Japanese man was somehow involved with Carl's death and that a search be carried out for "a Jap with a bloody gun butt." (Snow Falling on Cedars, p 52). Horace states that the Japanese are taught how to kill with sticks from their youth and that the injury sustained by Carl was similar to "one of those kendo strikes the Japs used." (Snow Falling on Cedars, p 50) Horace's statement is based on his prejudice toward the Japanese and was made without any form of objective analysis on his part but rather on his familiarity with the kind of injuries meted out by Japanese soldiers during hand to hand combat. Under cross examination, Horace admits that he could not confirm whether the injuries sustained by Carl were "the result of a blow to the head or the propulsion of the victim against some object." (Snow Falling on Cedars, p 58) Nor could he confirm whether there was any way a coroner could determine whether the wound was sustained before or after Carl's death. Horace's suggestion is appalling and calls into question his professional judgment and his morality as at that point of time there was no evidence at all that Carl was in fact murdered and he would be well aware how much fear, hatred and suspicion that it would arouse in an isolated community that is "vulnerable to hate" (Snow Falling on Cedars, p 386) and had a strong dislike of Japanese as a result of the war.
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The manner in which the Prosecutor Alvin Hooks conducts the trial is an instance of questionable judgment and immoral conduct. Hooks knows that the only evidence that he has is circumstantial and that he has no incontrovertible evidence linking Kabuo to Carl's death. However, Hooks allows his prejudice to cloud his better judgment as he tries to manipulate the evidence in a manner which plays on the fears, hatred and prejudices within the white community in order to secure Kabuo's conviction. This is demonstrated by the evidence adduced by the witnesses he called to testify. Sergeant Maples in his evidence in chief stated that that Kabuo was "both technically proficient at stick fighting and willing to inflict violence on another man ... and that "he was highly capable" (Snow Falling on Cedars, p 250) of killing a man. This evidence is at best circumstantial and is completely irrelevant in proving that Kabuo was guilty of committing any crime.
Notwithstanding this, Hooks was determined to obtain a guilty verdict displaying his total disregard for Kabuo's life.
It is also demonstrated by Hook's attempt to deviously distort the evidence provided by Dr. Whitman, his placement of Susan Marie as the last witness knowing that "The men especially would not wish to betray such a woman with a not-guilty verdict at the end of things. " (Snow Falling on Cedars, p 252) and his attempt to portray Kabuo as a treacherous and cold hearted outsider with no allegiance to America. As a trained lawyer, Hooks was well aware that the evidence he had against Kabuo would not stand up to any form of objective scrutiny. His conduct, which is centred on his knowledge of the jurors' inhibitions in that they "were required, by the very nature of their landscape, to watch their step moment by moment." (Snow Falling on Cedars, p 385) and that their fears and prejudices which resulted from years of racial discrimination of foreigners and the lingering effects of the war was not ethical and calls into question his morality and his integrity.
Another example of immoral conduct is the alacrity with which the eleven jurors arrived at a verdict of guilty and their contemptuous attitude toward Alexander Van Ness when attempting to convince him that Kabuo was guilty of murder. At the end of the trial Judge Fielding tells the members of the jury that they were selected "in the belief that each of you could, without fear, favour, prejudice, or sympathy, in sound judgment and clear conscience, render ajust verdict on evidence presented" (Snow Falling on Cedars, p 370) and that they must deliver a guilty verdict only if convinced of every element of the charge beyond a reasonable doubt. Notwithstanding the judge's comments eleven members of the jury had already decided on Kabuo's guilt before the commencement of their deliberations and spent three hours trying to convince Van Ness to change his mind. The jurors allowed their fear, ignorance and prejudice that had built up in their past after witnessing wide spread racism, not only by the island's inhabitants, but by the government which had legislated against foreign ownership of land and which had interned the Japanese Americans, to cloud their better judgment. The jurors, some of whom may had fought against the Japanese in the war could not find the compassion or forgiveness to overcome the past or their prejudice especially when faced with a case where a Japanese American is accused of killing a white man.
Etta's decision to sell her farming interests including the seven acres of land is also an example of immoral conduct. Though Etta was utterly opposed to the agreement entered into by her husband she was well aware that it was a legally binding agreement. 'The law let 'em own land if they were citizens. Them Miyamoto kids were born here so they're citizens, I guess." (Snow Falling on Cedars, p 108) She was also well aware that he husband would not renege on the business deal. Notwithstanding the agreement and the fact that the Miyamotos only had one payment to finalise the transaction, Etta disposed of her property including the seven acres. Etta justified her action by comparing her situation to that of a mortgagor defaulting on a bank loan. However, her decision to sell the property and rescind the agreement was based on her ignorance and prejudice. Under cross examination she admits to making a profit of $2500 on the sale of the seven acres which she keeps. Morally, that profit should belong to the Miyamoto family in accordance with the spirit of the agreement.
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Kabuo's and Hatsue's decision to remain silent about Kabuo's meeting with Carl before his death because they considered that no one would believe them and that the white community would "want to see" Kabuo "hang no matter what the truth" (Snow Falling on Cedars, p 344) is an instance of a "very serious error in judgment" (Snow Falling on Cedars, p 327). Their decision gave the prosecutor further ammunition to argue his case and a hostile and racist jury, many of whom were still harbouring prejudice towards the Japanese because of the war, more reason to suspect that Kabuo was guilty as charged.
While the novel does contain a number of instances of poor or questionable judgment and immoral conduct, it also includes examples of moral conduct and good judgment. One example of moral conduct is the decision taken by Arthur to publish articles in support of the Japanese-American's contribution to the community after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Arthur displays "an un flagging loyalty to his profession and its principles," and was "increasingly exacting regarding the truth" (Snow Falling on Cedars, p 30) as his decision came at significant cost to his newspaper and he was subject to considerable hostility and resentment by the majority of the community.
Arthur takes a courageous and moral stand against the injustice perpetrated against the Japanese-Americans which is commendable. He did not allow prejudice to dictate his decision and he felt compelled to disclose the truth no matter what the cost to the newspaper and despite the backlash from the community.
One example of good judgment and moral conduct is that of Van Ness when he refuses to submit to the demands of the eleven other jurors to find Kabuo guilty of murder. Van Ness's
One example of good judgment and moral conduct is that of Van Ness when he refuses to submit to the demands of the eleven other jurors to find Kabuo guilty of murder. Van Ness's refuses to condemn Kabuo without proof as he felt that, on an objective review of the evidence, there was reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty of murder and he was in no hurry to "condemn the defendant to the hangman's rope or jifty years in prison" (Snow Falling on Cedars, p 380) In doing so, Van Ness displays great strength of character in not yielding to the majority of jurors and he did not allow prejudice to interfere with his judgment.
Carl Heine Sr.'s compassionate behaviour towards the Japanese-Americans and the agreement he concluded with Zenhichi is an instance of astute judgment and moral conduct. Carl displays strong strength of character as he stands against injustice and prejudice so much that he "Stood around evenings up at the pickers' cabins jawing with the Japs and taking pains with the Indians, watching the women weave sweaters and such, drawing the men out on the subject of the old days before the strawberry farms went in. Carl!" (Snow Falling on Cedars, p 105). His decision to sell the land and to be bound by the agreement was governed by his assessment of the Japanese-Americans as diligent, very loyal and clean people who would work effortlessly for their employer and was not clouded by fear, ignorance or prejudice.
Carl Heine Jr.'s decision to sell the land to Kabuo is another example of moral conduct. Initially, Carl is hesitant about selling the land to Kabuo because "Kabuo 's a Jap. And I don't hate Japs, but I don't like 'em neither." (Snow Falling on Cedars, p 261) However, after Kabuo helps Carl on his boat and they discuss the matter again Carl agrees to sell the land to Kabuo. In doing so Carl displays fortitude and forgiveness in putting the past and his prejudices behind him. He arrived at his decision after the realisation that Kabuo was an American who had been scarred by the war just like him and did not allow prejudice to govern his judgment.
Ishmael's decision to come forward with the irrefutable evidence which helped to exonerate Kabuo is another example of good judgment and moral conduct. As a journalist and as Arthur's son, Ishmael is bound by a code of ethics to report the truth. Although he vacillates about the decision and the reasons for his hesitation could not be characterised as anything but immoral, he finally realises that he must act ethically and'morally when he finally realises that his relationship with Hatsue could not have lasted. Ishmael realised "that she had once admired him, there was something in him she was grateful for even if she could not love him. That was a part of himself he 'd lost over the years, that was the part that was gone." (Snow Falling on Cedars, p 388) and that he had to let her go. Once Ishmael was free of Hatsue's grip he did not allow hatred or prejudice to cloud his judgment and he knew what was morally right and what he had to do.
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The novel highlights how racism can distort the better judgment and morality of jurors who are assigned the responsibility of determining whether Kabou should be executed without any positive evidence alluding to his guilt and of professional members of the community who have a responsibility to act within ethical codes At the same time, the novel demonstrates that members of the community, even if they are in the minority, can make a difference by attempting to ascertain the truth at any cost and by not allowing racism to colour their judgment or their morality. In this case, these members were successful in securing the acquittal of an innocent man,
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