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Never Let Me Go

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English Literature

Kazuo Ishiguro's sixth novel, Never Let Me Go (2005), follows the life of Kathy H. by looking at her relationships with her friends, Ruth and Tommy, the unusual time she spent at a boarding school called Hailsham, and her current job as a 'carer'. This may sound pretty straightforward, but all of this takes place in an alternative, dystopian, 1990s England in which the characters must navigate their lives in the knowledge that they are clones, and their bodies and organs are not their own.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro: Summary

Never Let Me Go begins with the narrator introducing herself as Kathy H. who is working as a carer for donors, a job that she is proud of. As she works, she tells her patients stories about her time at Hailsham, her old school. While she reminisces about her time there, she also begins to tell her readers about her closest friends, Tommy and Ruth.

Kathy empathises a lot with Tommy because he was picked on by the other boys at the school, even though he accidentally hit her during a temper tantrum. These tantrums are a common occurrence with Tommy, as he regularly gets teased by the other students because he isn't very artistic. But, Kathy notices that Tommy begins to change and no longer cares that he is being teased about his creativity after he had a conversation with one of the school’s carers called Miss Lucy.

Ruth is a leader among many of the girls at Hailsham, and despite Kathy's quieter nature, the pair start a very strong friendship. Their differences, however, often cause arguments, particularly over Ruth's compulsive lying about her special relationship with Miss Geraldine (Ruth claims Miss Geraldine gifted her a pencil case) and her ability to play chess. The two girls often enjoyed playing games such as riding imaginary horses together.

When caring for her friend Ruth, who is in the process of donating, Kathy remembers how highly art was prioritised at Hailsham. This was reflected in the 'exchanges' that took place there, special events during which students would even trade each other's artworks. Kathy also remembers the students' confusion around the mysterious figure they nicknamed Madame, who would take the best artwork to the Gallery. Madame seems to behave callously around the students, and Ruth suggests that it is because she is scared of them, though the reason why is uncertain.

At one of the exchanges, Kathy remembers finding a cassette tape by Judy Bridgewater. A song on the tape titled 'Never Let Me Go' inspired very maternal emotions in Kathy, and she often danced to the song comforting an imaginary baby made from a pillow. Madame witnesses Kathy doing this once, and Kathy notices she is crying, though she doesn't understand why. A few months later, Kathy is despondent when the tape disappears. Ruth creates a search party, to no avail, and so she gifts her another tape as a substitute.

Never Let Me Go, cassette tape on a red background, studysmarterCassette tape - Pexels, pixabay.

As the friends grow up together at Hailsham, they learn that they are clones made for the purpose of donating and caring for the other donors. As all the students are clones, they are unable to procreate, explaining Madame's response to Kathy's dance. Miss Lucy disagrees with the way that Hailsham prepares its students for their future, as the other guardians try and protect them from understanding the reality of donations. She reminds several students of their reason for creation when they are dreaming of their futures beyond Hailsham:

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.

(Chapter 7)

Ruth and Tommy begin a relationship together in their final years at Hailsham, but Tommy maintains his friendship with Kathy. This relationship is turbulent, and the couple often breaks up and gets back together again. During one of these splits, Ruth encourages Kathy to convince Tommy to start dating her again and, when Kathy finds Tommy, he is particularly upset. Tommy is not upset about the relationship, however, but about what Miss Lucy had spoken to him about, and reveals that Miss Lucy had gone back on her word and told him that art and creativity were, in fact, of utmost importance.

When their time at Hailsham comes to an end, the three friends start living at The Cottages. Their time there puts a strain on their relationships, as Ruth tries to conform with those already living there (called veterans). The friendship group expands to include two more of these veterans called Chrissie and Rodney, who are a couple. They explain to Ruth that, while on a trip in Norfolk, they saw a woman that looked like her and could be her 'possible' (the person she is cloned from) at a travel agent.

In an attempt to try and find Ruth's possible, they all go on a trip to Norfolk. Chrissie and Rodney, however, are more interested in interrogating the ex-Hailsham students about 'deferrals', processes rumoured to have the potential to delay donations provided there is evidence of true love in the clones artworks. In an attempt to appeal to the two veterans, Ruth lies about knowing about them. Then, they all embark on finding out if it is Ruth's possible that Chrissie and Rodney had seen, but they conclude that, despite a passing resemblance, it cannot be her. Chrissie, Rodney, and Ruth then go to meet a friend from The Cottages who is now a carer, while Kathy and Tommy explore the area. The students at Hailsham believed that Norfolk was a place for lost things to appear, as a guardian had referred to it as the 'lost corner of England' (chapter 15), which was also the name of their lost property area; however, this idea later became more of a joke. Tommy and Kathy look for her lost cassette and, after searching a few charity shops, they find a version that Tommy buys for Kathy. This moment helps Kathy realise her true feelings for Tommy, despite the fact that he is dating her best friend.

Ruth ridicules Tommy's restarted attempts at creativity, as well as his theory about Hailsham students and 'deferrals'. Ruth also talks to Kathy about how Tommy would never want to date her if they split because of Kathy's sexual habits at The Cottages.

Kathy decides to start her career as a carer and leaves The Cottages, Tommy, and Ruth to do this. Kathy is a very successful carer and is often given the privilege to pick her patients because of this. She learns from an old friend and struggling carer that Ruth has actually started the donation process, and the friend convinces Kathy to become Ruth's carer. When this happens, Tommy, Kathy, and Ruth reunite after having drifted apart since their time at The Cottages, and they go and visit a stranded boat. We learn that Tommy has also begun the donation process.

Never Let Me Go, stranded boat, StudySmarterA stranded boat - Step-Svetlana, pixabay.

While on the boat, they discuss Chrissie's 'completion' after her second donation. Completion is a euphemism used by the clones for death. Ruth also confesses her jealousy of Tommy and Kathy's friendship, and how she had continually tried to prevent them from starting a relationship. Ruth reveals that she has Madame's address and wants Tommy and Kathy to try and get a 'deferral' for the rest of his donations (as he is already on his second).

Ruth 'completes' during her second donation and Kathy promises her that she will try and get a 'deferral'. Kathy and Tommy begin a relationship together while she is caring for him before his third donation, and Tommy tries to create more artwork in preparation for visiting Madame.

When Kathy and Tommy go to the address, they find both Miss Emily (the headmistress of Hailsham) and Madame living there. They learn the truth about Hailsham: that the school was trying to reform perceptions about clones by proving that they have souls through their artwork. However, because the public didn't want to know this, preferring to think of the clones as lesser, the school was closed permanently. Kathy and Tommy also learn that the 'deferral' scheme was merely a rumour among students and that it never really existed. As they continue to discuss the past, Madame reveals that she cried upon seeing Kathy dance with the pillow because she thought it symbolised a world when science had morals and humans weren't cloned.

When they return home, Tommy expresses his extreme frustration that they are unable to be together any longer, as they have learnt that deferrals aren't real. He experiences an outburst of emotion in the field before surrendering to his fate. He learns that he must complete his fourth donation and pushes Kathy away, choosing to socialise with other donors.

Kathy learns that Tommy has 'completed' and mourns the losses of everyone she knew and cared about while driving:

I lost Ruth, then I lost Tommy, but I won't lose my memories of them.

(Chapter 23)

She knows her time to become a donor is approaching and, like Tommy, surrenders to her fate as she drives to 'wherever I was supposed to be'.

Never Let Me Go: Characters

Kathy H.

Kathy is the narrator of the novel who engages in a nostalgic narrative about her life and friendships. She is a 31-year-old carer, aware that she will become a donor and die by the end of the year, and so she wants to reminisce about her life before this happens. Despite her quiet nature, she is incredibly proud of her job and her ability to keep her donors calm

Tommy

Tommy is one of Kathy's most important childhood friends. He is teased at school for lacking creative ability, and he finds relief in being told that it isn't a necessity for him to be creative until he conceptualises a theory that art has the potential to prolong his life. He is in a relationship with Ruth throughout most of the novel, but, before Ruth's death, he is encouraged by her to start a relationship with Kathy. Near the end of the novel, he experiences an emotional outburst like those he used to have at school because of the hopelessness of their situation. Kathy narrates these final moments with Tommy:

I caught a glimpse of his face in the moonlight, caked in mud and distorted with fury, then I reached for his flailing arms and held on tight. He tried to shake me off, but I kept holding on until he stopped shouting and I felt the fight go out of him.

(Chapter 22)

Ruth

Ruth is another of Kathy's closest friends. Ruth is boisterous, a leader, and she often lies about her privileges and abilities to maintain the admiration of her friends. This changes, however, when she moves to the Cottages and is intimidated by the veterans. She quickly tries to conform to their ways in an attempt to appeal to them. Kathy becomes Ruth's carer, and Ruth dies on her second donation. Before this, however, Ruth convinces Kathy to start her relationship with Tommy and apologises for trying to keep them apart for so long, saying:

It should have been you two. I'm not pretending I didn't always see that. Of course I did, as far back as I can remember. But I kept you apart.

(Chapter 19)

Miss Emily

Miss Emily is the headmistress of Hailsham and, even though she and the other staff care for the students, they are also afraid of and repelled by them because they are clones. She does, however, try to reform society's perception of the clones by trying to produce evidence of their humanity as individuals with souls, while also trying to give them a happy childhood.

We're all afraid of you. I myself had to fight back my dread of you all almost every day I was at Hailsham.

(Chapter 22)

Miss Geraldine

Miss Geraldine is one of the Guardians at Hailsham and is favoured by many of the students. Ruth, in particular, idolises her and pretends that they share a special relationship.

Miss Lucy

Miss Lucy is a Guardian at Hailsham, who worries about the way the students are being prepared for their futures. She occasionally has aggressive outbursts that intimidate students, but she is also sympathetic towards Tommy and gives him a hug in his final years at the school.

Madame/Marie-Claude

The character of Madame mystifies the clones as she often comes to the school, chooses artworks, and leaves again. Kathy is particularly intrigued by her because she cried when witnessing her dancing with an imaginary baby. Tommy and Kathy seek her out in hopes of prolonging their lives with a 'deferral', but they learn the reality of her presence at Hailsham through a conversation with her and Miss Emily.

Chrissie and Rodney

Chrissie and Rodney are two veterans at The Cottages who absorb the three students from Hailsham into their friendship group. They are, however, more interested in the possibility of a 'deferral' that they believe the ex-Hailsham students are aware of. We learn at the end of the book that Chrissie died on her second donation.

Never Let Me Go: Themes

Loss and Grief

Kazuo Ishiguro's characters in Never Let Me Go experience loss on multiple levels. They experience physical, psychological, and emotional losses as well as an entire removal of freedom (after being given the illusion of it). Their lives are created for the sole purpose of dying for another person, and they are forced to give up their vital organs and care for their friends as this happens. They are also denied any form of identity, creating a significant hole that the students try to fill.

Ishiguro also explores the different responses that people have to grief. Ruth is hopeful as she is forced to undergo her donations, and, in an attempt to seek absolution, encourages her friends to begin a relationship with one another. Tommy loses his hope for a future with Kathy and responds with a deeply emotional outburst before surrendering to his fate and pushing away those he loves. Kathy responds with a silent moment of mourning and enters a state of passivity.

Despite the fact that the clones die sooner than most people, Ishiguro describes the clone's fates as:

Only a slight exaggeration of the human condition, we all have to get ill and die at some point.1

While Never Let Me Go is a novel that provides a commentary on injustices beyond the morals of science, Ishiguro also uses the book to explore the human condition and our temporality on earth.

Memory and Nostalgia

Kathy often uses her memories as a way of coping with her grief. She uses them as a way of coming to terms with her fate and immortalising her friends who have passed. It is these memories that form the backbone of the story and are essential to the narrative in revealing more about the life of the narrator. Kathy particularly idolises her time at Hailsham, and she even reveals her memories of her time there to give her donors better memories of life before they 'complete'.

Hope

The clones, despite their realities, are very hopeful. While at Hailsham, some students theorise about their futures and their desires to be actors, but this dream is crushed by Miss Lucy who reminds them of their reason for existence. Many of the clones are also hopeful to find meaning and identity in their lives beyond donating their organs, but many are unsuccessful. Ruth, for example, is hopeful that they really did find her 'possible' in Norfolk, but then becomes despondent when she finds out that this wasn't the case. The idea of 'possibles' is important for the clones as they have no relatives and it is a link they feel disguises their true identity. Kathy finds a purpose in her role as a carer for other clones, as she prioritises trying to give them comfort and minimise their agitation during their final donations.

Many of the clones are also hopeful about the concept of 'deferrals' and the potential to delay their donation process. But, after it is realised that this was merely a rumour spread amongst the closes, this hope is proved futile. Ruth even dies, hoping that her friends will have the chance to live longer through this process.

Kathy also places a lot of hope on Norfolk, as she believed it was a place where lost things turned up. At the end of the novel, Kathy fantasises that Tommy will be there, but she is aware that this hope is futile since he has 'completed'.

Identity

The clones are desperate to find themselves an identity in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel. They are desperate for parental figures and often attach deep emotional attachments to their Guardians (particularly Miss Lucy, who hugs Tommy, and Miss Geraldine, who Ruth idolises). These Guardians encourage the students to find an identity in their unique creative abilities, although this is also in an attempt to prove that the clones have souls.

Ishiguro also makes it clear that the clones are searching for their greater identities by desperately searching for their 'possibles'. They have an intrinsic desire to learn more about themselves, but they also catastrophise who they are cloned from, claiming that they are made from 'trash' (chapter 14). Despite the unpleasantness of this theory, Kathy desperately searches through adult magazines for her 'possible'.

Never Let Me Go: Narrator and Structure

Never Let Me Go is narrated by a simultaneously friendly but also distant first-person voice. Kathy uses informal language to engage the reader in the intimate details of her life story, but, she rarely reveals her true emotions, choosing instead to indirectly refer to them and hide them, creating a gap between her and her reader. She seems almost ashamed of truly expressing her emotions, or perhaps proud of her ability to suppress them:

The fantasy never got beyond that – I didn't let it – and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn't sobbing or out of control.

(Chapter 23)

Kathy is also an unreliable narrator. Much of the story is narrated from the future in retrospect, which automatically enables some errors in the narrative as she bases it upon her memories, which may or may not be accurate. Furthermore, Kathy includes lots of her own theories and perceptions within her narrative, which could make her account of events biased or even incorrect. For example, Kathy assumes that Madame cried when seeing her dance because she cannot have children, when, in fact, Madame cried because she associated it with Kathy trying to hold onto a kinder world.

Although the narrative is predominantly retrospective, it bounces between the present tense and the past intermittently. Kathy is a character who often resides in her memories for comfort and nostalgia, as it was likely a time during which she felt safest before she became a carer and had to face the realities of becoming a donor every day. Her narrative is entirely non-linear because of the way that she jumps back and forth between the past and present without chronology as she is inspired by different memories over the course of her day-to-day life.

The novel is split into three sections that largely focus on the different times in her life: 'Part One' focuses on her time at Hailsham, 'Part Two' focuses on her time at the Cottages and 'Part Three' focuses on her time as a carer.

Never Let Me Go: Genre

Science fiction

Never Let Me Go has distinctive elements of science fiction. In the text, Kazuo Ishiguro expands on ideas surrounding the morality of cloning. He sets the novel in a time period that was just beginning to revolutionise this technology, particularly after the first successful cloning of Dolly the Sheep in 1997 and the first successful cloning of a human embryo in 2005. Ishiguro suggests that, in his fictional version of the 1990s, there have also been other scientific developments. There is something mentioned by Madame, called the Morningdale scandal, where a man was creating superior beings.

Although the novel clearly explores the potential for science, it acts as a warning against forgetting moral values.

Dystopia

The novel also has many dystopian elements. It is set in an alternative version of the 1990s in Britain and explores an inescapable society in which the clones find themselves. They are forced passively accept their premature deaths and their lack of freedom due to the fact that they were created for this purpose.

There is also a warning about the passivity of society to others' suffering. The fact that the public refused to create a superior being during the Morningdale scandal, but agree to accept their clones as lesser beings without souls, highlights the ignorance of people in general.

Never Let Me Go: The Novel's Influence

Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for several prestigious awards like the Booker Prize (2005) and the National Book Critics Circle Award (2005). The novel was also adapted into a film directed by Mark Romanek.

Kazuo Ishiguro has influenced other famous writers like Ian Rankin and Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood, in particular, enjoyed the novel Never Let Me Go and the way it depicts humanity and 'ourselves, seen through a glass, darkly.'2

Key Takeaways

  • Never Let Me Go follows the narrative of Kathy H. and her friends, as they navigate their lives with the knowledge that they are clones.
  • Kazuo Ishiguro uses the novel to explore the moral elements of science and the elective ignorance of humanity when it comes to benefiting them.
  • The novel comfortably fits itself as a piece of dystopian and science fiction.
  • The narrative is split into 3 parts that each focus on a different area of the clones' lives (part one, being their childhood at school, part two at The Cottages, part three at the end of their lives).

1 Kazuo Ishiguro, interview by Lisa Allardice, 'AI, Gene-Editing, Big Data… I Worry We Are Not in Control of These Things Anymore.' 2021.

2 Margaret Atwood, My Favourite Ishiguro: by Margaret Atwood, Ian Rankin and More, 2021.

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go explores multiple themes under the guise of a love triangle. There are questions raised about the morality of cloning and immoral science as well as the passive acceptance humans have to face because of the inevitability of death. 

Kazuo Ishiguro was born and lived his early life in Nagasaki, Japan. However, he then grew up in Guildford, England.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s characters in Never Let Me Go experience loss on multiple levels. They experience physical losses during their donations, emotional losses as their friends are forced to donate and a loss of freedom as their lives are created for the purpose of another. Ishiguro also highlights the different responses to this loss. Ruth faces her donations with the hope of something better for her friends, and is dependent on this hope in her death. Tommy responds to his lost hope for a future with Kathy with an emotional outburst and then an attempt to protect others from grieving him by pushing Kathy away. Kathy responds to her losses with a silent moment of grief and passivity.

Never Let Me Go is a dystopian novel that explores a late 1990s England when normal lives are preserved through the harvesting of their clones' organs who are kept in institutions across the country as students.

Tommy often had tantrums in response to being teased by other students at Hailsham. However, he overcomes this with the support of one of the Guardians at the school.

Final Never Let Me Go Quiz

Question

What is Kathy's job?

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Answer

Kathy is a 'carer' for the clones. This means that she looks after them as they go through the donation process until they complete.

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Question

What is significant about the characters in Never Let Me Go?

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Answer

Most of the characters in Never Let Me Go are clones.

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Question

When is Never Let Me Go set?

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Answer

Never Let Me Go is set in an alternative reality. While it is set in the 1990s, human cloning and complete organ donations are possible when, in reality, they weren't.

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Question

Why did Madame cry when she saw Kathy dance?

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Answer

Kathy thinks Madame was crying because she knew Kathy couldn't have a child. Instead, she finds out, she cried because she was sad about the changing world and acceptances.

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Question

What is Madame's real name in Never Let Me Go?

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Answer

Madame's real name is Marie-Claude.

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Question

What was the purpose of the Gallery in Never Let Me Go?

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Answer

The Gallery was used to display the best art from Hailsham outside of the school. The reason for this was to prove that the clones had souls.

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Question

What is the relevance of Norfolk?

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Answer

The clones view Norfolk as a place where lost things can be rediscovered. A version of Kathy's missing tape, for example, is found there by Tommy and Kathy.

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Question

What happens to Ruth in Never Let Me Go?

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Answer

Ruth dies before the end of the novel after her second donation. Before this though, Ruth, Tommy and Kathy go on a trip together to see a stranded boat. While there Ruth apologises for keeping the other two apart.

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Question

What is a 'possible' in Never Let Me Go?

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Answer

A 'possible' is the term used by the clones to refer to the human who might be the person they are cloned from. 

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Question

What is a 'deferral' in Never Let Me Go?

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Answer

A 'deferral' is thought to be the process by which clones can delay their donation process. Many of the clones theorise that it is true love that could be the cause for this, but unfortunately the entire concept is just a mere rumour.

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Question

What will happen to Kathy by the end of the year?

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Answer

Kathy is aware that she will start donating her vital organs at the end of the year.

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Question

What is 'completion' in Never Let Me Go?

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Answer

Completion is a euphemism for death, used by the clones. It occurs when the clones die from organ failure during their donations.

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