Never Let Me Go Analysis
- Kathy acts as both as the narrator and protagonist. Kathy's passive nature is reflected in her narrative voice, which is tinged with a quiet sadness.
- Ishiguro titled Never Let Me Go after a song by fictional singer Judy Bridgewater. Kathy listens to the song in her room, imagining that the singer is addressing a baby Kathy knows she could never have.
- Never Let Me Go has three primary settings: Hailsham, a boarding school for clones; the Cottages, the shabby, converted farmhouses; and the donor recovery centers, where Kathy works. Each setting gets progressively bleaker, reflecting the events of the novel.
Although Never Let Me Go is structured as a mystery in which much is concealed from the reader, its most important plot point is disclosed about a third of the way through the novelnamely, that the narrator has been cloned by a society which intends eventually to harvest her vital organs. The postponement of this crucial piece of information in the novel’s first one hundred pages allows the reader to bond with the narrator, the sensitive and intelligent Kathy H., who might otherwise be greeted by the reader in the same way her society sees her: as other than human. Additionally, the initial withholding of such information indicates Kathy’s reluctance to confront the reality of what is going to happen to her and to her friends, fellow clones who have been educated at the seemingly exclusive Hailsham School.
The school, in an isolated rural setting that segregates the clones from the rest of the society, also serves as a buffer for the children, protecting them to some extent from their true situation while they receive an education, develop creatively, and form close friendships. Despite Hailsham’s good works, however, Kathy’s retrospective monologue exposes a ruthless and conspiratorial aspect to the school, as if the institution were a sham predicated on repression and denial and calculated to lull the students into a false sense of security.
Miss Emily, the headmistress, is most concerned with protecting the children from a clear knowledge of their fates; it is she who represents the consensus among the guardians at the school that the children should not told about what is going to happen to them. Only one renegade teacher, Miss Lucy, especially galled by the children’s unsuspecting innocence, explicitly tells them how little they can expect from life. Miss Lucy’s outspokenness notwithstanding, Kathy comes to feel that, on a deep level, all the students had seen some glimmerings of the truth of their situation.
When she is assigned to look after the psychological well-being of those who are in the process of donating their organs, Kathy confronts the reality of death for the first time. She finds that the constant nearness to the suffering and death of her fellow clones compels her to look back on her life at Hailsham, a reevaluation in which she recognizes not only the strangeness of her years there but the degree to which the peculiarity of the students’ situation is masked by a veneer of normality.
Evaluating her childhood in the light of her knowledge of what will be her fate, she develops a double perspective, so that the more innocent way she once saw her childhood competes with the way she has revised her impressions now that she is an adult. For instance, Kathy begins to recognize the level of deception practiced at Hailsham, and, even more, begins to comprehend the puzzling behavior of her two closest friends, whose characters, like her own, have been formed by the psychological pressure implicit in their circumstances.
Kathy and her friends, Ruth and Tommy, know they will never marry, never have children, never have real jobs, and that, soon after leaving Hailsham, they will be placed in a hospital for the purpose of organ harvesting. This knowledge has damaged each of their personalities in different ways. Kathy responds by becoming muted and passive. Her best friend, Ruth, rebels against the message that her existence is of little value and compensates with self-serving fantasies, self-aggrandizing power plays, and attempts at entitlements of one kind of another. Determined to make herself special in any way she can, she blocks the...
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naturally developing romance between Kathy and Tommy until it is almost too late, keeping Tommy as her own lover and scheming against the trusting Kathy behind her back.
While Ruth becomes manipulative and selfish, Tommy responds to his situation at Hailsham with anger, which, in an environment that socializes its students to compliance, establishes him as an undesirable outsider. Tommy also refuses to cooperate with Hailsham’s emphasis on creativity, refusing to produce the works of art expected of the students. It is the artwork of the students that preoccupies the third major adult figure at Hailsham, Madame Marie-Claude, whose job it is to collect the best of the students’ works for a mysterious gallery intended to demonstrate that the Hailsham clones, contrary to popular opinion, have human souls. Madame Marie-Claude’s reaction is one in which sympathy barely disguises her actual revulsion, suggesting the limitseven the hypocrisyof her seemingly humane effort to prove students’ soulfulness though the excellence of their artwork.
When free from the coercive environment of Hailsham, in which the pursuit of art is part of a larger socializing process, Tommy does create little works of artdrawings of animals that are impossible to decipher close to the eye but, when held at a distance, are easily comprehensible. Tommy’s little animals suggest the narrative strategy of the novel itself, which is an accretion of seemingly unimportant and unrelated everyday details and episodes that, when seen from Kathy’s retrospective position, reveal larger, shocking patterns.
In addition to the way in which Kathy’s story reveals the complex relationships among schoolchildren, as well as her tragic destiny and that of her schoolmates, her tale also inferentially develops a revealing picture of the outside world that has bred the clones for its own purposes. Author Kazuo Ishiguro places this society not in the future but in the near past, positing an alternative history in which modern society has made great strides in biological engineering. Such technologies are not part of some futuristic dystopia, but, it is suggested, already existor have the potential to existin real time. The reader comes to understand that the system of cloning is so well-established that it is not subject to interrogation, so that few realize that such technology represents not only the triumph of science over ethics but, even more, establishes the absolute power of a scientifically advanced society to subject the individual to its will.
Ironically, the clones are sacrificed so that the larger population can evade illness and prolong their yearsbut despite the realization that health is indeed the goal of this society, it becomes clear that, in an insidious way, the society’s use of science has become deeply evil.
Never Let Me Go does not rest, however, as an interrogation of scientific advances that require the sacrifice or devaluation of designated segments of the population. The slightly surreal, parabolic quality of the narrative allows the story of Kathy also to point to other themes which move beyond that of a dubious technological progress which permits cloning for the purposes of organ harvesting. For instance, the passivity of the clonestheir eagerness to be a good students, good caregivers, and eventually good donorspoints to a theme Ishiguro has explored in his other novels, namely, the way in which individuals can be conditioned to accept the terms of a given society, even as these terms work against their own interests. Kathy and her friends never question their situationthey have been born to serve their society in this way, and they see their sacrifice as perfectly sensible, taking some pride in performing their duties as well as possible.
Another important theme in the novel is that of the nature of childhood: its innocence, its character as a protected zone in which one is shielded from certain harsh realities, foremost of which is mortality itself. This is a reality that is not specific to the situation of the clonesthe brevity of the lives of the seemingly “different” clones does not alter the fact that the rest of the human race shares exactly their awareness of mortality, especially its inescapability.
Society and Individual Identity
At the same time the novel faces both the power of society to limit the individual and the existential reality of death, however, it also explores what makes life worth living. At the end of the novel, when Hailsham has been suddenly shut down and when Kathy has lost Tommy and Ruth, she thinks about her own future, reflecting on what it was that she was supposed to be doing. On one level, the dramatic closing out of Kathy’s childhood points to the way in which as an adult it will be her society and her socialization into a society that dictate the behavior and the destinies of all its citizens. On the other hand, Kathy’s awareness of her oncoming mortality leads her to reflect on what it was in her life that mattered to her as an individual and not simply to her society.
From this perspective, the reader experiences Kathy’s sense of regret for missed chances and wrong turns, especially with regard to Tommy and the love affair that comes too late. The reader understands that Kathy’s sadness at the passing of herself and her friends is grounded in all the things about life that were valuable, such as love, friendship, childhood innocence, and creativity. Alone at the end of the novel and facing a grim future, Kathy nevertheless feels that she was given a happy childhood. Despite the irony with which Kathy has deployed the words “lucky” and “privileged” with regard to her time at Hailsham, Ishiguro demonstrates that, even if her society is uncomprehending, Kathy has transcended her role as a dutiful clone, revealing the emotional and perceptive woman she really is and affirming her value as an individual. That Kathy has become someone who is able to reveal her deep humanity suggests that she can indeed count herself lucky.
Source of the Title
Kathy becomes attached to a recording of an old song called “Never Let Me Go,” also the novel’s title. The song lyrics are subjected to a number of different interpretations, including that of motherlessness, childlessness, and the loss of the sheltering world of Hailsham. In defiance of the assumption that the clones are soulless monsters with expendable lives, the phrase also refers to the deep human connection among Tommy, Ruth, and Kathy. In fact, Kathy’s recognition of her humanity and that of her fellow clones may shape the way she countenances the awful future her society has prepared for her.
While the understated, ordinary surface of this story suggests traditional realism, Never Let Me Go reveals itself eventually as a surreal, unsettling parable that is as much symbolic as it is literal. It has been favorably compared to Ishiguro’s earlier success, The Remains of the Day (1989), and indeed there are similarities between the life of service and sacrifice scripted for Kathy and that of the devoted English butler in the earlier novel. What is strikingly original in Never Let Me Go, however, is its deployment of the conventions of both alternate history and dystopian science fiction. Combined with the insights into the human heart Ishiguro brings to all of his novels, Never Let Me Go succeeds as both an important modern fable and as a powerful psychological study.
Booklist 101, nos. 9/10 (January 1-15, 2005): 783-784.
The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 13, 2005, p. B6.
The Economist 374 (March 19, 2005): 87-88.
Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 1 (January 1, 2005): 11.
London Review of Books 27, no. 8 (April 21, 2005): 21-22.
The Nation 280, no. 19 (May 16, 2005): 28-31.
National Review 57, no. 11 (June 20, 2005): 53-54.
The New Republic 232, no. 18 (May 16, 2005): 36-39.
The New York Times 154 (April 4, 2005): E1-E8.
The New York Times Book Review 154 (April 17, 2005): 16.
The New Yorker 81, no. 6 (March 28, 2005): 78-79.