Response to Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go is an incredibly intense novel, filled with many emotional scenes. Ultimately, it includes the perfect examples of a full-blown identity crisis. The children raised at Hailsham are desperate to understand the purpose of their own lives, bodies, and minds. The children attain a sense of identity through their treasured collections, creativity, artwork and delicate social structures. 

Always Searching

Hailsham students
No one appears exempt from the harsh realities offered by the ambiguity of human identity; people seem to search incessantly for meaning and purpose in their lives. Reflecting upon the vast array of material explored this semester; I realized how frequently literature, films, and artwork focus on the complexity of human identity and humanity. Kazou Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go presents a dystopian society that focuses on the search for identity and meaning through curiosityand self-expression. This work demonstrates how disease and human imperfection can disconnect people from the external world, often causing them to forget the present and lose themselves in the future. By looking at the novel through Susan Sontag’s essay AIDS and Its Metaphors we can better understand the haunting correlations between the stigmas surrounding illness and their effects on one’s identity. Through the ability to interpret and understand these correlations we might craft a better understanding of our own identity.

Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go, is a gripping portrayal of humans who are being stripped of their identity and labeled as mere copies. The novel, set in Britain during the mid-1990’s, portrays a bleak world, where cloning humans is socially acceptable solely for the purpose of becoming organ donors for “real” people. Ishiguro focuses on three distinct characters, Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth, all of whom are clones. These three students – among others –are considered advantaged because they are fortunate enough to be raised at Hailsham, under the protective eye of “the guardians” and allowed certain privileges. Early on in Never Let Me Go, there is a sense that Hailsham students create art in order to make their identities tangible. The students desperately try to hold on to a sense of individuality through small collections, and their ability to create beautiful and meaningful pieces. Growing up, Kathy felt that how one was “regarded at Hailsham, how much you were liked and respected, had to do with how good you were at creating” (Ishiguro 16). This suggests that humans often attempt to create self-image through means of creation in other aspects of their lives. The students are raised to seek validity in the things they create, whether that be paintings, sculpture, or poetry.

Ishiguro also portrays the troubling possibility that our self-identity is incredibly fragile, and can transform itself when others impose judgments upon us. All of the students at Hailsham diligently attempt to improve their art in order to have their pieces selected for “the gallery,” which is an extensive collection of their best works. Consequently, this changes the students’ perception of their own self-worth, causing them to doubt their individuality and meaning.

Since Madame, curator of the gallery, always keeps a peculiar distance from the students, Kathy and a group of friends conceive a plan to test her reaction to their presence.  For the students, this begins as a lighthearted experiment fueled by curiosity, but this feeling quickly disintegrates when Madame reacts in horror causing the students to acknowledge that something about them is unacceptable. Kathy explains her feelings by saying “the first time you glimpse yourself through the eyes of a person like that, it’s a cold moment” (Ishiguro 36). This causes Kathy and her classmates to suddenly doubt everything they once viewed as concrete. Before this incident, the students were seemingly unaware that they terrified the general population. This scene provides the students with the consciousness to realize they are completely distinct from the people in the outside world. This strikes fear into the students, as they too must face the human consequence of self-doubt. Kathy explains “it’s like walking past a mirror you’ve walked past every day of your life, and suddenly it shows you something else, something troubling and strange” (pg. 36) Kathy’s figurative explanation, unfortunately, is an all too common human reaction. It illustrates the struggle for self-acceptance and the regrettable truths that one must inevitably face. The image that Kathy presents suggests a doubling effect, where the mirror image is an altered reflection of herself. The students were ready, even excited, at the possibility of discovering something new as a result of their experiment; but they never expected to have to redesign themselves in the process. Overall, their experiment was successful in discerning Madame’s reaction to their company, but her reaction caused them to understand the role that prejudice can have in a construction of identity. Terrified by the reality that had fallen upon them, the students attempted to search for concrete validation.

 Ishiguro often alludes to the universal human desire for concrete knowledge of personal identity and uniqueness. The students seem to find this reassurance in their small collections of personal items that represent pieces of themselves. Kathy recalls this in saying “maybe we all had little secrets like that – little private nooks created out of thin air where we could go off along with our fears and longings” (pg. 74) Here, Kathy’s yearning to “go off” demonstrates her desire for individuality and distance from the group. Similarly, humans often have to cope with doubt, and the students come to realize they are “different from the normal people outside; we perhaps even knew that a long way down the line there were donations waiting for us. But we didn’t really know what that meant” (pg. 69) In this quote, Ishiguro suggests that a purpose does not solidify one’s meaning in life. Despite knowing their purpose in life is to make donations, the students remain unfulfilled and continue to search for something that feels meaningful to them.

Throughout the novel, Ishiguro uses the euphemism “completion” for death, and the students are often confronted with the reality that this will eventually be their fate. The word completion suggests that they are fulfilling a sense of duty, but these characters do not internalize this meaning. This concept is not far from what most humans realize; namely, that at some point in time, our inevitable “completion” is inescapable. Ishiguro suggests we need to find out what makes our lives complete before the “end.” He creatively incorporates humanity’s attempt to escape from this future when Kathy and Tommy desperately search for a deferral. They hope the ability to demonstrate their true love to Madame and another Guardian will ultimately save them from their predestined “completion.” While Tommy undergoes the donation process at the hospital he rejects the identity that illness attempts to give him. He refuses to accept the truth of the situation—that this was a step closer to his completion. Kathy notes that Tommy was “always fully clothed because he didn’t want to ‘be like a patient’” (Ishiguro 238). Sontag presents a similar scenario demonstrating how one’s life can be distorted by the identity which illness relegates to them. She asserts that cancer gives patients “a new identity, (which turns) the patient into one of them” (Sontag 126 emphasis in original). In this way, Sontag clearly states how an identity can be given to a patient. This aids in the understanding of Tommy’s need to reject being stigmatized as a donor-patient, during his ultimate struggle to find meaning. In this novel’s context, the mere mention of “donor” implies clone, which leads us to the inevitable question- since these students are clones, do they possess a unique identity? Sontag labels cancer as “a creator of spoiled identity” and this is precisely what the word clone becomes in Ishiguro’s novel (Sontag 126).

Before seeking the deferral, there is a calm sense of hope, and this is most likely caused by a sense of identity created through meaning. At one moment, Kathy feels “relief, gratitude,” and “sheer delight” (Ishiguro 241). These feelings appear to be formed through the love that has grown between Kathy and Tommy. Ishiguro presents love as a part of identity and a way of fashioning it. Love is something that cannot be concretely labeled, but aids in developing meaning for one’s life.

Interestingly, despite all of their questions regarding identity, the students never doubt that they have a soul. At the end of the novel, Kathy and Tommy have to face the reality that Emily refused to share with them through all their years at Hailsham. When Miss Emily tells them “we did it to prove you had souls at all,” Kathy answers out of complete shock, “Why did you have to prove a thing like that, Miss Emily? Did someone think we didn’t have souls?” (260). The couple seems completely baffled that their souls were ever a matter of question. I find it intriguing that in today’s society many people –openly and internally -- struggle with skepticism and hesitate to believe in a concrete idea of their own soul or religious beliefs. Yet, in this novel the main characters are sure they have a soul until forced to realize the underlying questions behind all the mystery of creating art. The Guardians had hoped art would demonstrate the studentshad souls, when in reality you could see their humanity in every day life through the emotions that often overwhelmed them. Both Tommy’s excessive rage and Ruth’s desperation for control are coping mechanisms that highlight the uncertainty in their futures. On the contrary, Kathy handles her emotions in a different manner, constantly trying to keep everyone happy and at peace, often disregarding her own emotions and mental state for the benefit of her friends.

Since Tommy and Kathy were denied the deferral, it seems apparent that for Ishiguro, artwork and creativity are not sufficient in making life meaningful, thus suggesting - that it is our own creation of identity through experiences and relationships that truly matters. It is possible that this novel is Ishiguro’s forewarning to our lives. Stressing the importance of creating meaning and holding on to the moments and people we love, before it is too late. Ishiguro also suggests that human identity is forged through life experiences, desires, dreams and the ability to obtain meaning for oneself. Create personal meaning so one can make the most of the life they have.

Kathy, Tommy and Ruth desperately search for answers to the questions that make up their life. The Hailsham students often find themselves fully enthralled with their predestined future, or their peculiar past, rather than being absorbed in their present endeavors. This can also be seen in Sontag’s essay when patients forget what is currently going on, because they are completely engrossed in the future and ultimately their death. The students of Hailsham are aware of their purpose, and know that the donations will lead to their completion, this causes them to concentrate on finding answers instead of living their lives.

Another interesting concept from the novel includes the immense fear the students have of being created from “trash.” The student’s obsession is ignited from wondering if they will turn out like their genetic donor. This idea is similar to Sontag’s argument; that people with AIDS are considered less than human because of the stigmas surrounding the contraction of the disease. In her essay, Sontag suggests that society judges the ill and labels them accordingly. Sontag asserts that society describes AIDS in two ways. The actual illness is seen as an invasion, but when the focus is transmission, a different image is invoked: “pollution” (Sontag, 105). This view creates a divide between the healthy or “normal” population and those who endanger them with the chance of contamination – or “pollution,” as she refers to it. Many pieces of Never Let Me Go suggest a similar divide, the clones are separated from the “normals” in such a distinct and abrupt way that both sides have mixed feelings. The clones are unsure where they fall into the question of existence and meaning. The normal people tend to judge the clones in one of two ways; either believing them to be human, with unique identities, or labeling them as sub-human and only serving a scientific purpose.

Through carefully examining the role of identity and humanity throughout Never Let Me Go, we can decipher techniques to better observe our own lives. It is possible that through his novel, Ishiguro is warning us to find what makes our individual life meaningful before our own “completion.” Ultimately, the clone’s search for identity and purpose has no clear answers at the end of the novel, which is hauntingly similar to how many people feel in today’s society. Always searching.