What are some dystopian elements in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go?

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Some of the key dystopian elements in Never Let Me Go are lack of individualism (with the corollary of lack of choice), the prevalence of illness, and the failure of the educational system.

A dystopia is a society that has deviated from its utopian aspirations, turning the positive features into...

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Some of the key dystopian elements in Never Let Me Go are lack of individualism (with the corollary of lack of choice), the prevalence of illness, and the failure of the educational system.

A dystopia is a society that has deviated from its utopian aspirations, turning the positive features into negative ones. The people who control England in the future, as Kazuo Ishiguro depicts it, see themselves as individuals; each of them makes a choice to have clones created so that they have a supply of body parts to replace theirs when the parts fail. In order to achieve these perfect individual matches, however, each person must duplicate themself and could conceivably create multiple copies. Their very effort to maintain their own individuality has been doomed through this exact replication.

For the clones, the lack of individualism extends to their lack of choice. As their originals do not consider them human, they have no say in what will become of them. The choices that the original humans make about prolonging their lives are not available to the clones, who are utterly at the mercy of those who created them. Even the rumors of options, such as living in couples, turn out to be lies.

The powers that be had decided that they could ameliorate the damage of the clones’ impending demise by raising them with a positive environment, including such features as art education. This system is a strongly dystopian element because it is based on hypocrisy. Art depends on the artist’s internal searching so that they can express important truths about the human condition. For the clones, who have no knowledge of how society actually functions, what passes for art is a travesty of creativity. Their education ultimately consists of learning that everyone has lied to them.

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Like all dystopian stories, Never Let Me Go operates on a premise of a utopian vision gone wrong—in this case, showing the ideal from someone else's perspective. The ideal of being able to extend one's own life, to privilege one's own identity, consciousness, and experiences, at the expense of another, lies at the core of Hailsham's cloning project. The young clones—principally Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy in this novel—exist to die so that others may live longer. They are given a rarefied existence at Hailsham, but the purpose of their education, art, and human soulfulness is ultimately revealed to be meaningless. They were created to donate organs, and though Hailsham sought to give them a more fully humane existence by cultivating their souls, this ultimately is proven meaningless to the larger society, which needs only their healthy bodies.

The novel creates a poignant image of wonderful characters whose humanity is undervalued and who exist only as tools for exploitation. Like any class of humans whose humanity is denied them, the clones live in a dystopia of anguished longing for agency and self-fulfillment.

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Never Let Me Go, written in 2005 by Japanese-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro, is considered  a dystopian science fiction novel. The story follows Kathy and her friends Ruth and Tommy who grow up at Hailsham, which seems to be an idyllic boarding school in England. It is later revealed that the children cared for at Hailsham are actually clones who were created for the purpose of donating organs when they reach adulthood. When Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy grow up and meet their former headmistress, they discover that Hailsham was created as an experiment, providing humane treatment to cloned children in contrast to the conditions at other institutions.

Dystopian fiction typically portrays a setting that is at odds with the author’s ethos. The society of Never Let Me Go does not see cloned beings as fully human. A theme the novel explores is the power of art to reveal humanity. The “guardians” (teachers) of Hailsham encourage the children to produce art, which is displayed in exhibitions, in an effort to show the rest of society that clones are just as human as anyone else. Dystopian fiction often serves as an analogy for similar issues in the real world. In this way, Never Let Me Go may serve as a warning of the dangers of dehumanizing the “other,” any group of people seen as different or inferior.  

The ending of the novel is a bleak portrait of a future society that never does see the clones as real people. The protagonist Kathy is left alone, her friends Ruth and Tommy having “completed,” giving their lives in their last donations. Kathy knows that she will start her donations in a few months. This dark ending adds to the dystopian elements of the novel.

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I would argue that one of the chief dystopian elements, common to many dystopian classics, is the question of identity and what it is to be human. The clones show themselves to be identical to humans: they are able to love, dream and are physically the same. Yet they live in a society that has created them and given them life solely for the purpose of taking and harvesting their organs to give life to "real" humans. In this world that they live in they are looked down upon and regarded as a kind of sub-human species. The question of what is humanity and how do we define humans and separate them from such imitations abounds, and, just as in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the answers are rather unsettling.

Together with the issue of humanity, another topic that rears its ugly head in this excellent novel is that of rights and control. The clones live in a very tightly-controlled world. No mention is made of any clones ever trying to rebel against their lot. Although there are rumours of extra time that can be won, it is just extra time, not life, and these rumours are shown to be false in the novel anyway. Clones are created and brought up to serve one purpose: to give their organs until they die. As such, their existence is pitiful and short. They are used and abused by humans.

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