Never Let Me Go Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Never Let Me Go tranquilly opens with thirty-one-year-old Kathy H., a “carer” for “donors” who will mysteriously “complete,” that is, die, who is about to become a donor herself. Kathy seizes this moment to relate her apparently idyllic childhood at the boarding school of Hailsham, England. In the polite, reserved tone typical of Ishiguro’s first-person narrators, Kathy tells of her youth and that of her friends, cocky Ruth and misfit Tommy, who interact with a cast of fellow pupils at this apparently everyday upscale British institution. The reader of Never Let Me Go quickly realizes that there is a dark mystery at the root of Kathy’s recollection. Soon, the reader learns that Kathy lives in a dystopian alternate world where clones are raised to be harvested for their organs until they “complete” (die), generally after their fourth “donation.” The casual use of these euphemistic terms for barbarous acts is a strong motif of the novel.

The novel has a particularly haunting quality because Kathy, like all of her peers, quietly accepts the strange life for which they are being groomed. The title refers to Kathy’s favorite song at Hailsham. It is sung by a fictional woman singer, whom Kathy imagines is tightly holding on to her baby—a poignant fantasy, as all clones are infertile.

After graduating from Hailsham, Kathy and some of her peers are moved to the Cottages, where they live somewhat aimless lives. Ruth and Tommy become lovers while Kathy, who also loves Tommy, looks on. Their destiny catches up with them when “donations” of organs begin. Kathy cares for Ruth, a “donor,” who “completes” (dies). With Tommy next in line, he and Kathy realize their love and visit their former teacher, Madame, and Miss Emily, the headmistress of Hailsham. Miss Emily reveals the truth behind the cloning program. She also states that Hailsham was closed in favor of functional breeding centers that openly disregard a clone’s humanity. After Tommy dies, Kathy drives to Norfolk, forlornly gazing at the North Sea with a quiet, sad acceptance of her fate.

The plot may appear too far-fetched to be happening in late 1990’s England, when the novel takes place. However, read as a dystopian extrapolation of a society that grooms some of its members to serve others to their death, the novel’s theme is far less impossible. Kathy and her peers act with a quiet sense of duty. They do so in the same way that butler Stevens served Nazi-sympathizing Lord Darlington in The Remains of the Day or other Ishiguro characters served Japanese militarism. In letting Kathy tell of her dystopian world, Never Let Me Go emerges as a poignant tale of the dangers of acquiescence and the high cost of lives wasted nobly for the wrong cause.

Never Let Me Go Synopsis

Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go, was a Man Booker Prize finalist, the same prize that Ishiguro won for his 1989 novel, The Remains of the Day. Lynn Nutwell, a reviewer for School Library Journal, described Ishiguro's writing in Never Let Me Go as elegant and recommended the book for its "literary merit" as well as for it being a good medium through which to discuss the "controversial topic" of civil rights of human clones.

Yes, this is a futuristic story about human clones who are raised for the sole purpose of donating their organs to so-called normal human beings who come down with incurable diseases such as cancer. The clones are raised without fully being aware of their roles in life. They suspect that they might be different from those of the outside world—the world outside of the schools in which they grow up.

At the end of the novel, two of the clones, Kathy and Tommy, who are hoping to find at least a temporary escape from their fate, learn that they are special clones. They attended Hailshain, a British boarding school, where they were educated and treated to such domestic privileges as heated rooms and good food. There are many more clones, readers are informed almost at the completion of the story, who did not fare so well.

As it turns out, clones are looked down upon as being subhuman. They have been created to serve the so-called normal population. When they reach a certain age, the clones sacrifice their organs. Some clones, such as Tommy, go through four separate operations before they die, or as they call it, are "completed." Theirs is a hapless life. They do not discover until they have graduated from high school that they have no future, no civil rights.

Most of this story is told through the reminiscing of Kathy. Her best friends are Ruth and Tommy. The trio is very tight. After graduation, Ruth and Tommy become a couple for a few years, until they are called upon to make their first donations. Kathy is a carer. She consoles those who are donors, until she too is called upon to offer her organs. Readers are kept in the dark throughout most of the story, much as Kathy and the other characters in this novel are never sure what is happening. The story reads very much like a literary mystery.

Never Let Me Go Summary


The narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go, is Kathy H., who is described as a "carer." She is thirty-one and her job is to take care of people who donate their organs to those in need. The full details of her job are purposefully kept sketchy, a tactic used by the author to create mystery in this story. And Ishiguro is a master at it.

Never Let Me Go Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is set in England in the late 1990s. The narrator, Kathy H., says she is thirty-one years old and has been a “carer” for eleven years. She explains that although this seems like a long time, “they” want her to continue for another eight months. Some really effective carers are asked to stop after just a few years; she asks what can explain her longevity.

She explains that her “donors” tend to exceed expectations. They recover quickly and are rarely classified as “agitated,” even before their fourth donation. Kathy is quick to point out that she is not bragging. Given her experience, she gets to choose with which donors she will work. Although her detractors argue that this is just because she went to Hailsham, she points out that she has worked with all sorts of people. Besides, people are not machines, and being a carer can wear after a while.

Modest though she may be, Kathy does have an impressive record, and it seems that her success can be at least partially explained by her ability to tell what her patients need. For example, in one case, the donor had a difficult background. He did not want to share his childhood memories. Instead, when he found out that Kathy went to Hailsham, he wanted to hear about her childhood. In fact, he wanted to remember so that it would feel like it was his own childhood. The aura that surrounds Hailsham is powerful, and Kathy still thinks about her time there when she drives around the countryside.

She remembers the sports pavilion. She recalls watching with the other girls as the boys pick teams. The girls are all focused on Tommy, who is a talented player but is otherwise picked on by the other kids. The girls can all see what is about to happen but, Ruth points out, Tommy has no idea. The boys pick captains, but neither team selects Tommy, who in response flies into a tantrum. Kathy reflects that the girls were “vaguely curious” to watch this humiliation in a detached way.

However, Kathy notices more. She sees that Tommy is wearing his favorite blue polo shirt and that playing in the pavilion will ruin it. When he flies into his rage, cursing the boys and waving his arms about, Kathy leaves the group of girls and approaches Tommy. Before she can touch his arm, he unintentionally bats her hand away. She points out that his shirt is already a little muddy and offers advice on how to clean it, but Tommy struggles to overcome his anger. Kathy returns to her friends, who call Tommy a “mad animal.”

Chapter 2 Summary

Kathy reflects on why she would have helped Tommy and decides it was part of a phase she was going through in which she tried to challenge herself every day. But she all but forgets the incident before Tommy stops the flow of children ascending and descending the stairs to thank her. Given that they are thirteen at the time, this is anything but acceptable behavior. However, Tommy does his best to express his gratitude. Kathy wonders why the children pick on Tommy. When Kathy asks her friends, Ruth finally responds that although the pranks are cruel, Tommy needs to change his own attitude.

Tommy does not even contribute art to the seasonal exchanges. The exchanges are important at Hailsham because it is the only time...

(The entire section is 435 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

Tommy and Kathy agree to meet by the pond after lunch. It is a covert meeting; although Tommy is no longer being picked on, Kathy is still reluctant to be seen with him. It does not help that what he has to say is quite shocking to Kathy: a guardian (Miss Lucy) told Tommy it is okay if he is not very creative.

When Tommy asked teachers to help him with his social problems, most of them gave him a standard answer. Many suggested that he might be a late bloomer who will eventually discover his creative talents. However, Miss Lucy said:

There’s at least one person here at Hailsham who believes...you’re a very good student, as good as any she’s ever come across, never mind how creative you...

(The entire section is 454 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

In her present-day circumstances, Kathy tries to sort out her thoughts on her past at Hailsham because by the end of the year she will no longer be a carer. She reflects that much of what happened to her, Tommy, and Ruth was a result of their childhood experiences at Hailsham. She first considers Madame and the Gallery.

After their encounter with Madame, the girls are reluctant to discuss Madame, but the Gallery still comes up now and then. The Gallery has always been a taboo subject, but its impact on the exchange makes it a more public topic. In the exchange, Hailsham students can earn tokens in exchange for their artwork. However, when Madame takes work for the Gallery, the students lose tokens. These tokens are...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

Ruth inducts Kathy into the secret guard that defends Miss Geraldine. There are several girls in the secret guard, and all of them are committed to searching out those who will take Miss Geraldine away. It is understood that when the attack comes, they will take Miss Geraldine to the woods, so the girls prepare as well as they can. Ruth is the leader of this group, and she claims to have secret information—facts and experiences she hesitates to share with the others.

Ruth knows about many things. When she and Kathy walk past chess tables, Ruth will often stop to analyze the play. As they walk away, she will often confide a move that neither player has yet noticed is foolhardy. Kathy is impressed and decides to obtain...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

Kathy embarrasses Ruth by indirectly revealing the latter’s lie that Miss Geraldine has given her a pencil case. Although it only happened between the two of them, things remain awkward, so Kathy starts working to repair their relationship. Kathy does little things that allow Ruth to get more attention from Miss Geraldine, whom she adores. For example, if the two of them are both heading out the door of the classroom behind Miss Geraldine, Kathy slows down to let her friend go through first. Kathy can tell that Ruth appreciates these things. Soon Ruth returns the favor.

The students at Hailsham are not allowed to smoke and have been taught in detail about the dangers of cigarettes. In fact, when one student asks Miss...

(The entire section is 517 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

In this chapter, Kathy moves on to her final years at Hailsham. The students are thirteen to sixteen years of age. They have begun to think about their futures and to flirt with each other. These discussions dominate the thoughts of most of the students, but not Kathy’s. She credits her discussion with Tommy by the pond as a marker. After that, she began to question things more directly.

She begins to pay more attention to Miss Lucy. When discussing electric fences that were used in prisoner-of-war camps during the Second World War, the students begin to joke about the fences around Hailsham. They are not electrified, which Miss Lucy points out is “just as well” because “you get terrible accidents sometimes.”...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

Kathy finds Miss Lucy alone in a small classroom by accident. Sometimes Kathy likes to imagine that she lives with just a few people rather than an entire school community. She goes to vacant rooms and looks out over the Hailsham grounds. However, this time she finds Miss Lucy alone in a room at a table filled with papers. Miss Lucy is not crying, but Kathy is still inexplicably unsettled by the experience.

She would discuss moments like these with Tommy, but by this point their relationship has changed. Lately, Kathy’s peers have become obsessed with sex. There is a lot of peer pressure to have sex, but Kathy notes that few students actually have had sex. Instead, it is more like there is an unwritten agreement to...

(The entire section is 427 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

Now that Ruth and Tommy have split up, one of Kathy’s peers, Cynthia E., informs her that she might as well be Ruth’s “natural successor.” Although Cynthia does not seem to mean anything significant by this statement, it starts Kathy thinking, and it changes her plans. As an adult, Kathy is a carer for Harry, and she finds herself thinking about why she did not end up sleeping with him.

Although Cynthia seems to expect Kathy to start seeing Tommy, Ruth does not consider the possibility. Instead, she asks Kathy to talk to Tommy about getting back together. Although they have both hurt each other recently, she considers them even and is prepared to work things out. After all, they are about to leave Hailsham, so...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

In Part 2, Kathy and her cohort have left Hailsham and are living in the Cottages. Different students have gone to different areas of England, but Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are still together, and they have joined some “veterans” at the Cottages. However, this new community and the new setting cause friction, particularly between Ruth and Kathy.

Life at the Cottages is designed to help the Hailsham students make the transition into the outside world, though the area itself is quite unlike Hailsham. An old farmyard makes up the Cottages. A hired hand works there, but otherwise it is mostly run by a small group of students. Before arriving, the students are required to choose a subject to study over the course of two...

(The entire section is 409 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

Kathy explains the conflict beneath her spat with Ruth. For Kathy, there are two Ruths: the one that is her good friend and the one that is trying hard to be accepted in the Cottages. During the day, it seems like Ruth will turn her back on Kathy and Tommy to make friends. However, every night she and Kathy sit together and share their secrets, hopes, and fears. One of Kathy’s secrets is that she has become sexually active.

Kathy explains that although she had every intention of finding a stable boyfriend at the Cottages, she ended up having several one-night stands. She explains to Ruth that sometimes the urge to have sex simply overpowers her. So although she might not be interested in one of the veterans hitting on...

(The entire section is 416 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

Kathy explains that the twelfth chapter of Never Let Me Go serves as a background to a later trip to Norfolk. The first winter at the Cottages has passed and the Hailsham students seem to be settling into their life there. Ruth and Kathy still visit every night, but one night Ruth shares that two of the veterans, Chrissie and Rodney, think they may have seen a “possible” for Ruth working in an open-plan office in Norfolk.

As with so many concepts at Hailsham, a possible is something every student understands but few feel free to discuss. Kathy explains the theory behind possibles:

Since each of us was copied at some point from a normal person, there must be, for each of us,...

(The entire section is 490 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

Tommy, Kathy, Chrissie, and Rodney accompany Ruth to Norfolk to search for a woman who might be a possible for her. Ruth pretends that the trip does not mean much to her, and Rodney makes most of the plans, such as obtaining a vehicle. However, when it seems like they will not get a car after all, Kathy sees that Ruth is really upset. However, things work out and the five leave the Cottages for Norfolk together.

The friction between Ruth and Kathy continues. During most of the trip, the veterans sit in the front and Ruth passes the time joking with them. When Kathy confronts Ruth on this, she is surprised by her friend’s response. Ruth asks why Kathy always makes things difficult, and Kathy sees that Ruth has been...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

After their conversation about deferment, it is clear that the excitement of the trip is gone. Chrissie and Rodney propose to go buy some birthday cards in bulk, and after they enter the store, the five break up. Before long, Kathy sees Chrissie talking to Ruth; she cannot help overhearing Chrissie pressing for more details about deferment. She particularly wants to know whom they would contact. Ruth continues to dodge her questions, suggesting that Chrissie does not understand how things were because she never went to Hailsham. When Ruth sees that Kathy can hear her, she breaks off. As they leave the store, she gives Kathy a dirty look.

They leave the store and finally head to the office to see Ruth’s possible....

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary

Now that the others have left to see Rodney and Chrissie’s friend, Martin, Tommy and Kathy begin heading in the opposite direction. Kathy calms down and Tommy begins to comfort her. He suggests that they try to find a copy of the old Judy Bridgewater cassette tape Kathy had so enjoyed and then lost while at Hailsham. They find a store selling old clothes and music, and they even find a copy of the old tape, which Tommy offers to buy for Kathy.

They begin talking about deferment. Tommy wonders why Miss Lucy apologized for telling him not to worry about his art; her previous statement had comforted and helped him. He wonders why she would have decided that it did matter, after all. Now Tommy thinks that it might have...

(The entire section is 407 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary

Things at the Cottages soon become complicated. Everyone is curious about how the Norfolk trip went, but the five who went do not talk about it. Rumors begin to spread and eventually die out. Soon several students leave the Cottages to begin their training, and now a new set of rumors begins about deferment. Some people have even begun to say that clones besides the ones who went to Hailsham can defer their donations.

Tommy continues to act on his theory that deferment is possible and that it is conditional upon clones’ proving they are in love. Consequently, he continues to work on his artwork. Although Kathy is reluctant to look at it, she eventually gives in. The work Tommy has done is actually quite impressive....

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary

As Kathy looks back, it seems like the argument between her, Ruth, and Tommy was the catalyst that pulled the three apart. At the time, however, it seemed like one of the many arguments Ruth and Kathy have. Even without the fight, perhaps the three would have split up anyway because “there were powerful tides tugging us apart by then.”

More and more students are leaving the Cottages to become carers. At first, Kathy is intent on finishing her essay. When she and the others first arrived at Hailsham, the essays seemed so important, but since then they have become less pressing. Kathy notes that the same thing that bound her, Tommy, and Ruth together as Hailsham students weakens as their dedication to the essays...

(The entire section is 367 words.)

Chapter 18 Summary

In Part 3, Kathy has left the Cottages and has grown accustomed to her life as a carer. Although some carers find their lives lonely after the sociability of life at Hailsham or the Cottages or elsewhere, Kathy has learned to value long drives. Other carers can live with the solitude, but many are demoralized if one of their donors has a bad operation. Kathy has learned to deal with such losses. Another carer from Hailsham, Laura, has not.

Laura left the Cottages after Kathy did, and she is surprised to learn that Kathy and Ruth have not kept in touch. Laura and Ruth were never very close, and she admits that they parted on cold terms, though they were not necessarily hostile. After Kathy left, Laura explains, Ruth...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

Chapter 19 Summary

Tommy’s recovery center in Kingsfield is not as nice as Ruth’s. In Dover, Ruth is at least kept comfortable and everything is new. Tommy’s recovery center is

out of the way and awkward to get to, and yet when you’re there, there’s no real sense of peace and quiet.

The bathrooms are too far from where the donors are kept, it is cold, and some rooms are not wheelchair accessible. When they meet Tommy again, he is recovering from his second donation.

Tommy has not been to see the boat yet, so the three set off with Kathy driving. Along the way, Ruth begins tell a story about someone she knows before Kathy finally jokes that she does not need to hear any...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Chapter 20 Summary

Although Kathy tells Ruth that she will become Tommy’s carer, their relationship does not immediately become intimate. In fact, it is nearly a full year since their trip to the boat before she and Tommy begin to see each other again.

Before long she has grown accustomed to the recovery center at Kingsfield. In some ways, it is better than she at first thought; if nothing else, Tommy has a large, private room. It is important to Kathy that they become intimate quickly. Although Tommy is now recovering from his third donation, she does what she can with her hands until he recovers. She can tell that Tommy is happy they are together now.

Kathy always worries that they are not doing enough somehow. When they...

(The entire section is 385 words.)

Chapter 21 Summary

Tommy and Kathy find Madame outside her house and ask whether she would be willing to speak with them. Kathy introduces them as Kathy H. and Tommy D. She assures Madame that they mean her no harm but that they are from Hailsham. Upon hearing this, Madame invites them into her home.

The inside of Madame’s house is poorly lit, but there are many works of art on display that appear to be from Hailsham. Madame sends Tommy and Kathy into a sitting room with Victorian furniture. She goes upstairs, and when she comes back down she goes into another room. When she finally enters, she invites Tommy and Kathy to sit down. When she passes them, Kathy feels like Madame tucks in her shoulders so she will not have to touch them....

(The entire section is 424 words.)

Chapter 22 Summary

A great deal is revealed about the history of Hailsham during Kathy and Tommy’s conversation with Miss Emily. Kathy and Tommy’s purpose in coming to the house is to ascertain whether it is possible to defer their donations. It is not possible, though it brings Miss Emily no joy to say so. She tries to explain that they did receive something during their time at Hailsham. They are educated and cultured.

The history of cloning stretches back to the 1950s, and by the time people began to think about where the replacement organs came from, it was too late to do anything about it. Miss Emily asks, how could anyone go back to a world in which there was no cure for cancer? In the early days, the clones suffered in terrible...

(The entire section is 561 words.)

Chapter 23 Summary

After their trip to see Madame, things are not the same between Tommy and Kathy. They continue to care for each other and still sleep together. However, it is clear that things are changing. When Kathy goes to see Tommy, he is more likely to identify with the other donors at the recovery center. At first these differences are small. One time, Kathy arrives at the center and finds Tommy talking to some of the other donors. Although he sees her, he does not immediately come over to her, though he claims afterward to have invited her over to him.

Tommy is about to make his fourth donation, and it is rare for donors not to complete before this. There is a great deal of respect for donors who make it to their fourth...

(The entire section is 399 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear