How are women depicted differently than men in Never Let Me Go?

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In "Never Let Me Go," women are depicted as nurturing and maternal, while men are shown as more physical and prone to emotional outbursts. Female characters, like Kathy and Ruth, assume caregiving roles, whereas Tommy, the significant male character, struggles with traditional masculine norms but later excels in the donor role. The story's setting in a dystopian-like institution further emphasizes these gender-specific roles.

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In Never Let Me Go, the vast majority of the characters are female. In fact, there is only one significant male character, Tommy. Adult male characters do not appear, and the reader does not learn about the overall gender distribution of power and governance.

The clone children grow up within the tightly restricted institutional environment of Hailsham, a juvenile detention facility with the superficial attributes of a school. Most of the adult authorities, called guardians, are female, including Hailsham’s head guardian, Miss Emily. One supportive guardian, Miss Lucy, promotes the children’s learning and artistic expression. Some of the children develop close attachments to the women, such as Ruth, who creates a “secret guard” attached to Miss Geraldine. The Hailsham guardians are contrasted to Madame, who does not work at the school but comes only to take work from the Gallery; she is presented as remote from the children.

Tommy is presented as alienated from the typical boys, who remain in the background as a group. While Tommy wants to join them in activities such as sports, he is too emotionally high-strung to be a successful team player. By emphasizing his differences, including his later success in artistic activities, the author emphasizes the norms against which his unusual behavior stands out.

The two main female characters, although they grow up together, are very different in personality. Ruth is headstrong and often irrational; as a child, she frequently lies. Kathy, in contrast, is nurturing, calm, and trustworthy. It is Kathy who ultimately proves more capable of loving Tommy, and in the end she becomes Ruth’s carer.

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Before tackling the subject of men and women in Never Let Me Go, it is important to understand the time periods in which the story takes place. Although the book opens in the 1990s, the actual story begins in the 1960s with Ruth, Kathy, and Tommy all at Hailsham, the boarding school that is part preparation and part distraction from the dark fates awaiting each character. While the events take place in our world, it is a world off kilter. Technological advancements have created a kind of science fiction utopia/dystopia, depending on whether you are a recipient or a donor. Couple this with the attitudes toward men and women in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and you have a heartbreaking environment in which to explore Ruth, Kathy, and Tommy’s coming-of-age tale.

Immediately, you should notice that each gender has certain roles ascribed to them. Men are to be more physical, masculine, and prone to anger and outbursts when their emotions overwhelm them. Women, on the other hand, are expected to be nurturing, maternal, and in control of their emotions, especially when taking on roles like caretaker.

When Tommy breeches the boundaries of the masculine and feminine by creating art or reacting counter-emotionally to ascribed male roles, the status quo reasserts itself, and he faces ridicule and punishment. As a child, he couldn’t possibly have the emotional fortitude to weather this kind of storm, so he learns to suppress his emotions.

Ruth and Kathy, however, are like two sides of the same coin. Ruth embraces her femininity and sexuality, taking lovers and acting spitefully when scorned. Kathy moves into a maternal, caregiving role, reserving her aggression and bottling up her sexuality.

The “professional” roles available to each of the characters, too, reinforce the above-mentioned gender roles. Carers embody an idealized femininity, so it was natural that Tommy would not succeed well in that role. However, as a donor—the epitome of masculinity—he is quite successful. Ruth manages for a number of years as a carer and donor but is ultimately too fragile for either role. Kathy, on the other hand, fills the carer role to a tee.

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The two main female characters in Never Let Me Go, Ruth and Kathy, can offer some insights into the ways women are portrayed in the novel. In terms of presenting opportunities for dramatic conflict in relationships, Ruth and Kathy portray qualities often associated with female characters in literature. The two girls are friends at Hailsham when they are in school, but their relationship begins to unravel when Ruth understands that Kathy cares for Tommy. Ruth undermines her friendship with Kathy by pursuing a romantic relationship with Tommy. This shows Ruth is calculating and manipulative: pursuing Tommy is a way for Ruth to establish control over her environment in a situation where her fate is sealed and her future already mapped out.

Kathy, on the other hand, deals with the spectre of her fate rather differently; she holds tightly to her love for Tommy and her depth of compassion leads her down the path of training to be a carer. She even acts as a carer for Ruth when her time comes to "complete." Both women deal with the helplessness of their situations very differently: Ruth, by manipulating Tommy and trying to make Kathy jealous; Kathy, by hiding her love for Tommy and finding ways to help others who are also doomed to donate their organs and die at a young age. 

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