Never Let Me Go: a Dystopian Novel by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kareem Sayegh

external image Never_Let_Me_Go.jpg Plot Summary:

Never Let Me Go follows the story of Kathy H., who designates herself as a carer- a nurse figure to organ donors. We follow her through life as she moves from her youth in a boarding school type setting called Hailsham to the less supervised "Cottages" and eventually into the real world. As the story goes along we begin to realize that Hailsham is a school designed for something other than education. At Hailsham, students are forced to be "creative" and amass a great amount of artistic and original work. These students' best work is taken by a mysterious lady, given only the name "Madame," who then puts it into a rumored gallery. The school is run by a large number of "Guardians," the designated teachers of the students and keepers of the peace. The most notable of these Guardians, Miss Emily, seems to have a soft spot for these children and is often very distressed at their naievity.

Miss Emily's worries are caused by the fact that this school is a place for kids who have been cloned to donate organs to normal people. All the students at Hailsham will sooner or later become donors and donate multiple organs before they die an early death. The story follows Kathy's love with Tommy, her childhood friend from Hailsham and eventual donor who is taken under Kathy's care. It also follows her friendship with Ruth, a girl who also becomes a donor under Kathy's care. It is set in Britain in the 1990's and references many geographical areas of Britain.

About the Author:

external image 5133_jpg_280x450_q85.jpg Kazuo Ishiguro was born in 1954 in Nagazaki, Japan and moved to Britain when he was five years of age. He considers himself British and sets Never Let Me Go in Britain. All his life his parents expected to return to Japan which led Ishiguro to feel like an outsider looking in. This may be what accounts for some of his characters' detachedness. He has won the Booker Prize for his novel, The Remains of the Day in 1989 and has won many awards since. Ishiguro is married to Lorna MacDougall, a social worker who specializes in training foster parents. His marriage to MacDougall, as well as his own brief stint in social work, might shed some light on his writing of Never Let Me Go and the creation of Guardians and Carers. Ishiguro often talks about how writers often do their best work in their younger years stating that they peak "a few years before footballers." His own mortality as a writer gives him an interesting view on mortality in life:

"It is not, that I will not be alive soon - hopefully - but I realise my abilities might not be there beyond a certain age..." (1)

Themes and Ideas:

Never Let Me Go brings up many interesting themes. The novel centers around a future where clones are harvested for their organs, yet given almost everything else allowed to a living person. The only thing they can't do is harm their bodies or have children. The themes obviously centralize around this problem. However,

Sex and Love
Sex plays an important role in the novel being something the kids at Hailsham are very free to pursue. Kathy herself participates in a certain degree of sexual voyeurism in the second part of the novel. The twist, however, is that they are completely infertile and unable to bear children. This creates a totally different dialogue around sex than the one we have in today's community. First, there is no view of sex as a reproductive activity. Depending on how you think about this it could be a positive thing or a depressing fact of life for clones. Realizing that imposed infertility is a very different beast than voluntary infertility, one can see how it affects them. Yet, sex is still something you do with a loved one (although you do it with others too). It becomes this sort of anomaly. It is non-reproductive, often purely sensory, but can also be used in a more traditional relationship setting.

Inevitability of Death
The inevitability of death is a central part of this book. The donors, especially during their youth, realize that they will become donors later on, but they are never fully aware of it until they actually begin donating. These clones go through the psychological stages of aging much more quickly than normal humans as they move from youthful innocence to wise acceptance in a span of less than thirty years. Ishiguro's way of making his characters out to be normal people reminds us that this inevitability is not singular to clones. All things are subject to this force. Reading the book with this in mind brings out a totally different interpretation (to be discussed in more depth later).

Carpe Diem
Since the donors have a short time to live, they seem to want to live life to its fullest. This tried and true literary trope, used by the likes of John Donne and Christopher Marlow, plays a central part in Ishiguro's narrative. In essence, the children are taught to have sex, be creative and enjoy all aspects of life in great density at Hailsham and they try to make the most of their lives after they leave. Tommy's relationship with Kathy plays on that idea quite a bit.

Evidence of Souls (Spoiler)
The clones in the book are all expected to produce vast amounts of significant and high quality creative work. In a later chapter of the book we come to find that the gallery Madame has been creating was intended "to prove you [the clones] had souls at all." (260) Ishiguro's subtle style allows tension to build up throughout the majority of the book to finally bring out one of his most important issues. Since, for most of the book, we are in the society of clones and are being given the world through a clone's eyes we fail to see an outside perspective. From the outside, however, this question most definitely exists and it seems that most of society has assumed a lack of soul on the part of clones. Marvin Mirsky states that souls are what make us human. He goes on to argue that for many years humans have slaughtered animals on the basis of animals' soullessness. The dilemma created by cloning humans for the sole purpose of their death is one that could be easily cured by simply labelling them, too, as soulless. Mirsky states, however, that this is how a society creates "a socially organized and approved system of murder." (5)

Critical Reception:

Many people have written analyses of Ishiguro's book. The predominant analysis is one in which Ishiguro wrote the book in response to the great leaps of scientific innovation of the past few decades. However, fear of cloning is something which many authors have written and hinted at and this understanding of the novel but scratches the surface. Bruce Robbins has seen it as a fear of the welfare state. A welfare state is a state in which the government takes responsibility for the welfare of all its citizens (healthcare, food, shelter, etc.) According to Robbins, Ishiguro turns this concept on its head. Essentially he creates a world where a welfare state is finally created. Everyone is finally allowed to get the organs they want. That's where the twist comes in. There seems to be a small message there that it is impossible to create a perfect welfare state without something or someone being subordinated and used to improve the life of others around them. (4)

Keith McDonald compares the autobiographical style of Never Let Me Go to that of A Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood and A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. He calls this style of futuristic memoir "Speculative Memoir". (6) The way I see similarities between Ishiguro and Atwood is the use of neologisms. Just as Atwood uses guardian to refer to someone who guards the new way for the state, Ishiguro uses Guardian to refer to the women who patrol Hailsham. This use of the word guardian is similar and different in that these guardians guard the children of Hailsham from the knowledge of their destiny to a certain degree.

Daniel Vorhaus writes a review of Never Let Me Go that believes the book is a novel against the use of cloning for unethical reasons. He sees the whole book as being centered around the idea of cloning. (7) Ishiguro himself, however, says he feels disappointed when people try to read his novel as a dystopia and a warning. He is open to that interpretation but feels that the most important message of the book is lost. He wrote the book as a way to be insightful about the human dilemma of mortality and what we should do with that mortality. In essence this "dystopia" is just a setting in which a much more important human struggle takes place.

Although most reviews and analyses of this book seem to classify this book as speculative fiction, dystopia or science fiction, there is a less voiced interpretation that is just as strong. Michael John Harrison, himself recognized as a writer of speculative fiction, wrote a review about Never Let Me Go saying,

" This extraordinary and, in the end, rather frighteningly clever novel isn't about cloning, or being a clone, at all. It's about why we don't explode, why we don't just wake up one day and go sobbing and crying down the street, kicking everything to pieces out of the raw, infuriating, completely personal sense of our lives never having been what they could have been. " (2)

Ishiguro agrees with him, saying that the book is not supposed to be a response to a frightening technological future-- but to an immense human dilemma that's been around forever.

"When people have come up to me at these events the ones I've been most pleased with people who [have] said, 'This is a very sad novel but there was something also quite affirming in it... because the characters are so decent.' ...The fact is, yes we will all fade away and die but people can find the energy to create little pockets of happiness and decency while we're here... I'm probably less excited when people come and say to me, 'oh this is a chilling warning about the way we're going with cloning and biotechnology,' ... They've missed the inner heart of the book." (3)

I, being a strong believer that the author's intent should be the last thing taken into consideration when reading a piece of work, still end up gravitating towards Ishiguro and Harrison's interpretation. Reading through this book I never had a feeling that I was reading a dystopia. The characters all were too normal and unshaken. There was only a sense of urgency brought about by their untimely death that created fear. Ishiguro never delves into the science of cloning or how cloning works or any sort of intricacies we would expect in a futuristic novel. If he had created a sense of realism like that the book would have seemed more speculative as if he were saying, "This is the future and this is how it will work." The fact that it is set in the past also reduces the setting's daunting atmosphere, from Kathy listening to cassette tapes, to the primary mode of transport remaining to be the automobile, Ishiguro leaves the world as it is.

Cloning ends up to just be a mechanism for speeding up death. Ishiguro is trying to squeeze his characters' lives down to a short span of time. He lets them have their childhood ignorance in Hailsham, but he brings them to old age in their 30's. That's where the magic happens. Kathy and Tommy don't begin their relationship until his first donation and they don't have long till he "completes" (another neologism in Never Let Me Go which essentially means to die). This book doesn't make you worry about cloning, it makes you worry about wasting your life. The theme has been around for centuries, and it's an idea any English professor would love to talk to you about. Carpe Diem (Latin for seize the day) has been written about by Shakespeare, Donne, and numerous others and now it finds its way into a modern novel, however dressed up it may be. What makes this book depressing is the fact that Kathy and Tommy don't get together earlier, that all of the characters in the book seem to make use of their time too late. What we don't realize is that the same problem applies to us. I doubt many could say with much conviction that they have never passed up an opportunity in their life.

Harrison sums this feeling up when he says, "Never Let Me Go makes you want to have sex, take drugs, run a marathon, dance - anything to convince yourself that you're more alive, more determined, more conscious, more dangerous than any of these characters." (2)

However, much of the evidence still directs you to a dystopic reading of the book. The whole story resembles The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursela LeGuin. In her story everything in this place is utopic for everybody but one baby who lives in total misery. Never Let Me Go creates the same double-edged sword, creating an amazing system for donating a large amount of organs to those in need at the expense of a marginal population of clones. This is a variation on a theme, of course, as it resonates with slavery, institutionalized poverty, and even your day to day job (to a far lesser degree). Ishiguro even realizes this and dedicates a number of chapters whereupon Miss Emily and Madame talk to Tommy and Kathy about the way normal humans view clones. This in addition to the Atwood-esque neologisms and the blatant fact that cloning plays a central role in this novel makes it clear that Ishiguro, depite his wishes for a non-dystopic reading of the text, intended there to be dystopic elements in his novel.

To reconcile these two, seemingly irreconcilable ideas, it seems one has to view Ishiguro's novel as a carpe diem story in a dystopic setting. Essentially the essence of the novel is a timeless one about the inevitability of death and the need to pursue important things in life before time runs out. The backdrop, however, is a mild dystopia-- not one of mass nuclear warfare or insane autocratic rule (he makes no memorable reference to government other than stating rules imposed on clones), but one where there is a significant problem for a small group of people. This backdrop, however, creates a catalyst for the themes of the novel as well as ones own thoughts. The reason the book is so open to interpretation is that the author's style is so subtle. Unlike 1984, in which the message of the novel is clearly delineated midway with the replication of The Book of the Brotherhood, Never Let Me Go lets readers draw their own conclusions about the message the book is trying to convey.

Works Cited:

1. Adams, Tim. "'For me, England is a mythical place.'" The Guardian 20 Feb. 2005. 1 May 2009 <>.

2. Harrison, Michael John. "Clone Alone." Rev. of Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. The Guardian 26 Feb. 2005. 1 May 2009 <>.

3. Ishiguro, Kazuo. Interview with Karen Grigsby Bates. Day to Day. Natl. Public Radio. 4 May 2005. National Public Radio. 1 May 2009 <>

Robbins, Bruce. "Cruelty Is Bad: Banality and Proximity in Never Let Me Go." Novel: A Forum on Fiction 40.3 (Summer2007 2007): 289-302. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 6 Mar. 2009 <http://search.ebscohost. com/login.aspx?direct=true&db= aph&AN=32583666&site=ehost - live>.

5. MIRSKY, MARVIN. "NOTES ON READING KAZUOISHIGURO'S "NEVER LET ME GO."." Perspectives in Biology & Medicine 49.4 (Sep. 2006): 628-630. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO6 Mar. 2009 < login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph& AN=22858198&site=ehost-live>.

6. McDonald, Keith. "DAYS OF PAST FUTURES: KAZUO ISHIGURO'S NEVER LET ME GO AS "SPECULATIVE MEMOIR"." Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 30.1 (Winter2007 2007): 74-83. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 6 Mar. 2009 < login.aspx? direct=true&db=aph& AN=24112154&site=ehost-live>.

7. Vorhaus, Daniel. "Review of Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go." American Journal of Bioethics 7.2 (Feb. 2007): 99-100. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 6 Mar. 2009 < login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph& AN=24232995&site=ehost-live>.