Two central motifs in Never Let Me Go are art and music. In navigating themes of death, innocence, and eternal recurrence, Ishiguro illustrates how creativity embodies the practice of the soul exercising itself. Perhaps most significantly, Tommy’s art created throughout his time at Hailsham heavily mirrors his complex emotions; as...
Two central motifs in Never Let Me Go are art and music. In navigating themes of death, innocence, and eternal recurrence, Ishiguro illustrates how creativity embodies the practice of the soul exercising itself. Perhaps most significantly, Tommy’s art created throughout his time at Hailsham heavily mirrors his complex emotions; as he recounts, “hings like pictures, poetry, all that kind of stuff, [Miss Emily] said they revealed what you were like inside” (175).
When Tommy and Kath go to the Madame’s house to seek a deferral, she confirms this intent but with the emphasis that “We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or, to put it more finely, we did to prove you had souls at all” (260). Ishiguro, however, endeavors to portray that these clones do indeed have souls; the emotional characteristics seen through in their art exemplify their humanity.
Furthermore, Ishiguro explores music as a motif to illustrate its function as a lasting representation of timeless innocence. An illuminating example is the image of Kath dancing to “Never Let Me Go” as a child. Madame explains to Kath how watching her dance to that song—as a person responsible for her eventual expiration through organ donations—made her feel, realizing the weight of the “harsh, cruel world” which she has been complicit in implementing:
I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go. (272)
As illustrated in this quote, this novel examines the anxiety revolving around society’s devolvement when humans exchange empathy for technology’s allure, which feels resonant when Kath’s friends turn to corpses. Ishiguro paints a tragic reality in this passage by stressing Madame’s hopeless attitude towards humanity’s fate. On the other hand, however, the song’s message—and title of the novel—serves as an enduring, eternal thread solidified by the friendships between Kath, Ruth, and Tommy, because, in Kath’s words, they are “unable quite to let each other go.”
In Never Let Me Go, several symbols and imagery pop up again and again.
First, Never Let Me Go has more animals than your local zoo—almost. Tommy draws elephants and imaginary animals. Jackie make giraffes. Kathy compares herself and her pals to spiders. The Hailsham student population creates tons of animals. We never see any real animals, though.
The art galleries that appear in Never Let Me Go are a source of happiness and of heartbreak. Madame's Gallery makes Kathy and her classmates excited about the possibility of displaying their art there. The gallery encourages them to dream. When it turns out that Madame's Gallery doesn't exist, those dreams dry up. It's a similar bummer when, at the Portway Studios, Kathy and her friends realize that Ruth's potential clone isn't going to work out.
Kathy doesn't just like her copy of Judy Bridgewater's Songs After Dark, she loves it. The tape reminds her of listening to Judy Bridgewater by herself in her dorm room, and it reminds her of Tommy—more specifically of when he found the tape in Norfolk. Kathy deals with a lot of loss throughout the book, but that tape is one of the few things she gets back. She regards Judy Bridgewater as an old friend, a constant presence, and having her around makes Kathy happy. Plus, Judy Bridgewater doesn't fight with her like Ruth and Tommy do.
Just like the art gallery motif, water imagery in Never Let Me Go is a mixed bag. At times, it's a source of glee, like Tommy's football splashing fantasy. Other times, it's a source of peril and insecurity, like Tommy's mental picture of two people caught in a forceful current, Ruth's dream of a flooded Hailsham, and when it disappears. Water in Never Let Me Go mirrors the unpredictability of being human.
A Motif is a distinctive feature or dominant idea in an artistic or literary composition, and Never Let Me Go is rife with them.
The book is full of animal imagery -- the kids at Hailsham are constantly painting, drawing, or sculpting animals for inclusion in the Gallery. Tommy, specifically, spends a great deal of time drawing his imaginary animals. We return to them over and over, in childhood and adulthood. But the interesting thing about animals as a motif is that we don't really encounter any real animals. This serves to highlight the divide between the manmade and natural world: between the "originals" and the clones.
Water also plays a key role in the imagery of the book. We encounter it a lot in dreams -- for example, Tommy's dream of two people clinging to each other in the strong current of a river -- but we also are faced to confront a lack of it -- when Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy go to look at the boat that has been abandoned in the sand. Even though too much water can be dangerous, water represents movement and life, whereas a lack of it represents stagnation and death.
The Cassette Tape
The book gets its title from the song that Kathy listens to over and over, and the cassette is the first item on the list of Kathy's lost things. Losing the tape foreshadows all of the loss that she will endure in her life, as her most important relationships begin to drop away.