How can Never Let Me Go be viewed through a Marxist lens?
In Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, a dominant system of exploitation prevails in a world where clones are raised for the sole value of their harvestable organs. The narrative follows students at the Hailsham School, whose ultimate fate is governed by their status as disposable clones, perceived by non-clones as lacking in humanity. In this world, this system of “donation” is perpetuated by what Georg Lukacs calls “reification of the mind” in his Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat. This is a form of alienation that works through distorting the consciousness of the people within the system. However, also present in the novel are “structures of feeling,” described by Raymond Williams in Marxism and Literature. The novel seems to portray the small fragments of resistance which break through the wall of reification, the structures of feeling, through the fervent fantasies of the characters.
The idea of a “structure of feeling” is a complex and subtle concept. As opposed to “fixed forms” of social ideology, structures of feeling are present, active, and relational. They are “concerned with meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt, and the relations between these and formal or systematic beliefs are in practice variable.” Williams uses this term to more closely relate the personal to the social. “Consciousness, experience, and feeling” are not removed from the structure of the system as a whole. These are modes of thinking that are interrelated to the way people understand the system and their own roles in it.
The significance of a structure of feeling lies in its relation to the reality. It forms “in the true social present,” and thus is the most relevant form of consciousness to an individual within the system. Rather than representing something that is rigid and static, it represents something that is constantly in flux. It is “defining a social experience which is still in progress.” Because structures of feeling are still in progress, they are imbedded in “living processes.” However, they are “often indeed not yet recognized as social but taken to be private, idiosyncratic, and even isolating.”
In particular, structures of feeling have a “special relevance to art and literature.” This relationship indicates the strength of Williams’ concept, despite the understanding of structures of feeling as inconstant and subjective. “The idea of a structure of feeling can be specifically related to the evidence of forms and conventions—semantic figure—which, in art and literature, are often among the very first indications that such a new structure is forming.” As employed in works of art, they can become a “form of modification or disturbance.”
In Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, a work of art itself, these structures of feeling are exposed through the shifting consciousness of the characters. The narrative unfolds its horror in a way that normalizes the stark exploitation. Life in this system thus seems ordinary. However, there are small instances of alternatives that sometimes appear through the naturalization. In the beginning, this manifests in the students’ lives as indications of an element of specialness. Hailsham students often speak of a desire for a “normal” life. One of their guardians, Miss Lucy, informs them that:
“None of you will go to America, none of you will be film stars. And none of you will be working in supermarkets as I heard some of you planning the other day. Your lives are set out for you. You’ll become adults, then before you’re old, before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll start to donate your vital organs. That’s what each of you was created to do. You’re not like the actors you watch on your videos, you’re not even like me. You were brought into this world for a purpose, and your futures, all of them, have been decided.”
Kathy makes an interesting observation about Miss Lucy’s outburst to the students. Her classmates reacted little to it, saying, “Well so what? We already knew all that.” However, Kathy notices something quite profound. As Miss Lucy said, the clones had all been “told and not told” about their fates. Their minds have been reified, so even if they do not understand the full consequences of the system they live in, they consider it natural. Nevertheless, the fact that the students even wonder about lives outside of the system seems to demonstrate that the reification of their minds is not complete. All of these indications that a desire for something other than their reality exists are cracks in the perception that the clones’ reality is the only possible reality.
Lukacs explains this normalization of their own bodies as disposable commodities as the consequence of reification. In a capitalistic system, the labor-power of an individual becomes a commodity. “This transformation of a human function into a commodity reveals in all its starkness the dehumanized and dehumanizing function of the commodity relation.” The distance and abstraction of the worker’s individual capacities from the work itself “results in an inhuman, standardized division of labour.” However, for the system to work, the minds of the individuals within the system must somehow comply with this dehumanization.
Reification turns human consciousness into an isolated, abstracted, and discrete object in the mind. The reified mind has come to think of the conditions of reality as common sense. Even though the lived experience might be one of constructed exploitation and brutal dehumanization, “the reified mind necessarily sees it as the form in which its own authentic immediacy becomes manifest and—as reified consciousness—does not even attempt to transcend it.” This cruel reality becomes regarded as the “true representatives of societal existence.” Thus, it is clearly demonstrated that the clones of Ishiguro’s novel have reified minds. Even though they live in a system where the most core parts of their bodily functions, their internal organs, are turned into commodities in the most violent manner, they have been so desensitized to the system that they regard it as ordinary. The clones’ inability to feel the true magnitude of the system in which they live, and what they are producing, shows how their minds have been reified.
According to Lukacs, there are opportunities for glimpses at the innards of the system, even through the haze of reification. These moments of “crises” poke holes in “the pretense that society is regulated by ‘eternal, iron’ laws.” These crises are intricately related to Williams’ “structures of feeling.” The dominant system will always attempt to distort the reality in some manner, so the first task to break through the dominant system is “to understand, its own concrete underlying reality lies, methodologically and in principle, beyond its grasp.” The structures of feeling in the lives of the clones disrupt the formal “laws” of the system. Then, “these ‘laws’ fail to function and the reified mind is unable to perceive a pattern in this ‘chaos’.” These moments are glimpses past the reification.
Interpreting the novel through these lenses illuminates the consciousness of the clones, how it has been distorted and the moments which bring a brief clarity to the distortion. Even though Hailsham students know their ultimate fate as organ “donors,” they hold this knowledge in a very vague manner. Clones cannot have any lives other than what they were made for, yet these students still dream of different lives. Despite the powerful reification of their minds, feelings of unease still bubble up for these clones.
One of the most obvious theories that the clones perpetuate amongst themselves is the theory of “possibles.” Kathy’s explanations of this idea are tinged with hope. “Since each of us was copied as some point from a normal person, there must be, for each of us, somewhere out there, a model getting on with his or her life.” This means that for the clones, there is always the possibility of finding the person they were copied from. “One big idea behind finding your model was that when you did, you’d glimpse your future.” This is profound because the clones obviously do not have the same future as the “normal” people on which they were modeled. Yet, there still is a structure of feeling that pervades, in which the clones have an experience of wondering about a different, better life. Many of them even have “dream futures.” Kathy notes that “we probably knew they couldn’t be serious, but then again, I’m sure we didn’t regard them as fantasy either.” The clones attempt to live in a “cosy state of suspension in which we could ponder our lives without the usual boundaries.” Even though they know their own realities in the system, a structure of feeling in these “possibles” and “dream futures” permeates their “common sense.” Ruth especially becomes obsessed with this notion. Her “dream future” is to work in a modern, normal office. When the Hailsham students’ fellow clones from the Cottages, Chrissie and Rodney, tell them that they might have seen Ruth’s possible living Ruth’s dream future, they embark on a journey to find the possible. Even though there is very little hope in this situation, Ruth desperately wants to find this woman who seems to represent who Ruth could have become. The exploited people in the system, the proletariat clones, are not comfortable in their reification, and this shows in their structures of feeling.
Moreover, the most hopeful fantasy of the clones’ is one that leads to the final confrontation between Kathy, Tommy, Madame, and Miss Emily in the novel. Chrissie and Rodney tell them of a rumor they’ve heard about Hailsham students who “in the past, in special circumstances, had managed to get a deferral.” The rumor says that if a couple could show that they were truly in love, then they could ask for “donations to be put back by three, even four years.” This information lights a certain hope in the hearts of the Hailsham students. This shows that they do not simply accept their fates, even if the system ultimately consumes them. There is resistance in some form, and there is the consciousness that the system is not perfect or entirely normal.
According to Williams, these structures of feeling have the potential to become “contradiction, fracture, or mutation within a class.” This has powerful implications for our own world. The idea that Kathy, Ruth, Tommy, and the other clones have the ability to imagine a life beyond their system shows that their reification can be broken. Even if their consciousness was not completely illuminated, there were still points of light that broke through the fog. Simply put, this means that there is still hope for raising consciousness in the system. Being able to see, feel, and perceive a world beyond the dominant system is a complex and difficult task, but it is the first step towards change.