Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is a tricky novel. It seems almost innocent in describing the lives of its three main characters which live an uneventful life in a boarding school and how they grow up. But beneath that unexciting surface lurks a dark story about rearing children in ignorance, teaching them to pretend and making them believe in authority at all times. Yes, the book also deals with cloning and what makes us human, but this has been dealt with in enough other books and movies. What fascinates me about that book is the way it portrays education and society but also the way it incorporates the three things I tell my students too often about: ignorance, authority and pretense. I just finished reading the book in my main class and was happy to see it was received (mostly) well, because I wasn’t sure students would find it appealing. But now I know that I would read it again and while working on it, I was surprised how much the novel has to offer and how thought-provoking it is. It has a lot of aspects to discuss and I want to try to get at most of what I deem important, which will still be a lot. For structure’s sake, I will follow the three-part division of the book.
In the childhood and teenage years of the novel, we meet our characters Kathy (who is also the narrator), Ruth and Tommy. They go to Hailsham, which is the school they live at. We eventually learn the students’ purpose, which is to donate their organs when they are older to save “real” humans’ lives. The question is, why they need to go a school for that purpose, but we’ll get there in part 3.
The children in Hailsham are taught to follow authority under all circumstances. They don’t have parents, so they have to look at their teachers (called “guardians”) and each other for how social interaction works. It is clear that the guardians teach them to obey and don’t allow them any kind of freedom. In fact, they don’t even allow them the slightest bit of privacy. Subtly it is made clear that none of the children are ever alone or unobserved, so that it is actually hard to have a private conversation or to just be for yourself. This ensures, from the very beginning, that the children are incapable of developing an individual personality. They are constantly forced to measure themselves based on what others think. Any criticism from the guardians means disapproval from the rest of the students, making it clear that the guardians’ opinion counts more than anyone else and there is not even the possibility of not obeying them or just questioning what they are told.
On the other hand, the group dynamic of the students reinforces that authoritative system. Ruth is the leader of the group and it is repeatedly made clear that this is considered to be good for them, to follow one leader who tells them what’s right and wrong. Kathy is the only one who seems to attempt to do things differently but whenever she does, she immediately backpedals, questioning herself and ignoring her instincts, like when she helps Tommy or confronts Ruth. She does not trust herself because like everyone else, she has never learned to do that. There are only the guardians, the group and the group leader and that’s all that counts. Ruth exemplifies that by only caring about appearance, rules and attitude, even when she pretends to subvert the rules. She does everything to retain her power, using lies and manipulation to rally her followers any way she wants. Her personal feelings are never made clear because she learned early on that personal feelings don’t really count.
The students are reminded regularly that they are special and that they have to take extra care to protect their health because they are so special. The truth is never explicitly said as they are being “told and not told” about their purpose. That means that they are told enough to know their place but not enough to really feel used or mistreated. They are bound by real fences around the school that they would never dare to cross but also by myths, like that the woods are dangerous. They are also kept in the dark about other things like sexuality. The students are confused because they are not told everything, again making them insecure about how things actually are in the “real world.” (“In other words, for all the talk of sex being beautiful, we had the distinct impression we’d be in trouble if the guardians caught us at it.”) Thereby, the real world is less appealing than the world they live and will eventually die in.
Only when Tommy and Kathy are alone, they are able to look beyond the boundaries they live in and to actually question them. They are helped by Miss Lucy, one of the guardians who seems unhappy with the system they all live in and repeatedly wants to open her students’ eyes (yes, I can identify with her!). She first offers Tommy some truths and later tells a whole class that their purpose in life is to donate organs and that they will never have a real future. “Your lives are set out for you.” she says, one of the few occasions where someone clearly says that they have no control over their lives and are bound to follow the authorities, right up until they die. She thinks the ignorance taught at Hailsham is wrong and is consequently fired because of it. But it is interesting to see how the students react to having their eyes opened. They try to play it down by pretending they knew it already, they claim the guardians planned exactly how much information they could take in until they are ready for the whole truth, they don’t really talk about it and they joke about it. “I’d say the rule about not discussing the donations openly was still there, as strong as ever.”
This is a theme that runs throughout the novel. I guess in every chapter at least once something is said along the lines of “We didn’t talk about it.” In their world ignorance is clearly bliss and they follow that lesson throughout their lives.
What is interesting about part 1 is that most of it can easily be applied to our society and our school system. We mainly rely on authority and rarely respect individual interests. Critical voices are ignored and we pretend that what we do has a bigger purpose than it actually does. We don’t live that far from Hailsham with the difference that our students only have to give their future to a job they probably won’t like, so that any dreams of becoming a famous actress or pop star are similarly futile. This is one reason why I think the novel is so relevant even without all the cloning.
What is most noticeable here and part 3 is how much our characters’ education at Hailsham influences their behaviour for the rest of their short lives. They move to the Cottages to wait until their training as carers or donors starts. Having learned to depend on your group this continues here as they make sure that no one is ever alone or has any privacy, even without the guardians guarding them. What also continues is their willingness to not talk about what matters to them. They have to pretend to read books to show that they are able to adapt to their new surroundings although everyone knows it’s just pretense.
They deal with sex as can be expected from their confusing sex education. Everyone has sex but they try not to talk about it. Kathy has several sex partners which is generally accepted (especially by her partners) but Ruth still makes clear that her behavior is not “normal”, although real norms have never been established for them. Kathy feels “urges” to have sex which she herself doesn’t consider to be normal which Ruth immediately reinforces. There are porn magazines lying around and everyone is looking at them but they call attribute them to an old student named Steve who, from what we can gather, never existed but it is easier for them to pretend it belonged to someone who forgot them then to admit liking them. All of them publicly ignore their sexual desires.
On top of that, someone else becomes clear, which is that emotions are almost never expressed and rarely in a sincere way. Everyone seems completely detached from their feelings which is not surprising if we consider their upbringing in Hailsham (and the fact that they have no parents). Ruth and Tommy’s relationship is just for appearances and Kathy not once admits how she feels for Tommy (or the other way around). Their friendships are equally impersonal. Kathy, as the narrator, assures us that she and Ruth were best friends but we never really see that. Everyone tries to make Ruth happy because she is the leader but she never seems to appreciate that. Even moments where Kathy and Ruth clearly have strong disagreements are whitewashed by future Kathy who endlessly justifies Ruth’s awful behaviour. Is it because Ruth is dead by the time of the narration and she wants to portray her in a good light or because she deludes herself into believing that things were better than they actually were? She is an unreliable narrator in many places in the novel, putting thoughts in Ruth’s mind that she never expresses and giving her the benefit of the doubt for no reason.
This can be seen even more clearly in theoretical tragic romance between Tommy and Kathy. It does become clear that Tommy has feelings for Kathy and maybe she has feelings for him, too but they are complete unable to express their feelings, maybe because they are unable to feel them. In their pivotal scene in Norfolk where they work together to find Kathy’s lost favorite song, she is mean to him most of the time (maybe she learned that from Ruth) and they misunderstand each other constantly. Their final conversation in chapter 15 shows no mutual understanding. Even the tape with the song that clearly is important to her is something she is embarrassed about it, “like it was something I should have grown out of.”
When their friendship falls apart at the end of part 2, it is guided by Ruth who is simply jealous and plays Tommy and Kathy off against each other. But Kathy doesn’t say a word to protect Tommy or herself and to save their friendship. “My first instinct was to deny it, then just to laugh. But there was a real authority about the way Ruth had spoken, and the three of us knew each other well enough to know there had to be something behind her words. So I stayed silent.” But there is nothing behind her words! Ruth’s authority again makes Kathy deny her own feelings and thoughts because that’s how she was brought up. As a narrator she again tries to justify her silence but it is not convincing and it’s clear she again deludes herself because she can’t admit the truth. It’s admirable how Ishiguro challenges his readers to make up their own minds and not rely on the narrative voice. Later Ruth becomes even meaner by telling Kathy that Tommy doesn’t care about her and although Kathy uses that to start her training and leave her friends behind, there is not one emotional reaction to that in the book. She tells it all matter-of-factly and I suppose that’s really all she knows. “We didn’t really talk properly again at the Cottages” she says to show how their relationships had deteriorated but they had never talked properly before either!
The self-delusions they had learned to apply to themselves at Hailsham are visible throughout the time at the cottages where at the end they become adults. But they don’t change very much except for growing older and becoming less sceptical as the urge to question they live in has mostly gone now and will only reappear in a surprising place in the next part.
Kathy has been a carer now for a while and the part starts describing her difficulties adapting to her new life, but when you take a look at her words, the self-delusion is very much present. “Then there’s the solitude,” she says, explaining: “You grow up surrounded by crowds of people, that’s all you’ve ever known, and suddenly you’re a carer. You spend hour after hour, on your own, driving across the country, centre to centre, hospital to hospital, sleeping in overnights, no one to talk to about your worries, no one to have a laugh with.” Instead of pity for her loneliness, we see through her self-pretense that her description sounds like it was in the cottages or in Hailsham. Everyone was so busy pretending and not allowing to show their emotions that her new life can’t be so different. Who was she really able to tell her worries? We never actually see her doing that as a kid or a teenager and we never see much laughter either. When Kathy hears that Hailsham was closed she feels like her parents died. She becomes afraid that she will lose her way and her identity; she’s worried that she doesn’t belong anywhere anymore because her personality was defined by Hailsham.
Ruth has become a donor and her personality has drastically changed. She is not strong and no leader anymore, she is very bitter when it comes to her life as a donor and the most critical person about the whole system. Which is still not that critical but more than anyone else. She repeatedly says that certain things “happen more than they tell us”, which comes closest to saying that the whole truth has been kept from them. She moved from being the centre of all the life around her to just another organ bank, knowing that death is close. Maybe her change is so drastic because she expected more from life than everyone else. Still, it is interesting that her few bitter remarks is the only disobedient voice in the whole story. It is hard to go against what you have been taught to believe, especially in a world that keeps pretending there is no other way.
Kathy on the other hand is not changed by everything she sees as a carer. You could argue that she instead tries even more not to see what’s going on and to pretend everything is fine. Her emotions are as bottled up as ever and there is hardly any strong reaction to any of the life-changing events at the end of the novel. When Ruth admits that she kept Kathy and Tommy apart and that she wants them to apply for a deferral, Kathy does not want to hear it and cries (for the first time, I think). But she seems more upset by the disruption to her worldview then by what Ruth did to her. Right after her short crying, she doesn’t want to talk about it anymore (“It might seem odd, but […] we didn’t really discuss any of what had just happened.” No, not odd, just business as usual). She goes on to say that any more talk would just make things worse and “once all the strong emotions had settled […] I was feeling okay.” We didn’t see any strong emotions and because they never talk about any of it, there is hardly a reason for anything to be settled. In the end, Ruth dies without hearing from Kathy how she feels about anything. Nothing is reconciled, everything stays as it was before and Kathy says, “I’ll never know for sure, but I think she did understand.” What becomes clear here is how little Kathy understands herself but in her world that is all she is willing to admit.
It’s similar with her relationship to Tommy. They become a couple but as expected there is not much passion between them, it feels like they feel obliged to stay together, at least as long as they try to get a deferral. Since we never got the feeling that she was really waiting for that moment, it is strange when she says they “finally started having sex.” She explains that “if we left it too long […] it would just get harder and harder to make it a natural part of us.” The key word here is “natural” because if you have to work on something to feel natural, it by definition is not natural. But she has to work to make the pretense work and to fulfil the expectation of a loving couple that she and Tommy now have to become. She mentions that their time was rarely happy and always mixed with sadness and unsurprisingly they almost never talk about anything that is important for them, not even the supposedly crucial deferral. “We’d hardly discussed anything openly.” When their plan for deferrals turns out to be a fantasy, they essentially break up because there is no reason for her relationship anymore. Before he dies (or “completes” as this world of pretense likes to call it), he tells her a really personal story about his childhood and she can’t help but fall back on calling him a “crazy kid”, as if she still can’t understand what kind of person he is. There is a kiss (“a small kiss”) and Tommy’s gone too and Kathy is back to her solitude that still doesn’t differ from her life with people.
Before that happens, there’s the scene where Tommy and Kathy visit Madame and Miss Emily and they tell them what the real purpose of Hailsham was. It is a very fascinating moment, because it leaves the reader with an uneasy feeling. On the surface, the image of Hailsham changes from a prison to raise clones as obedient children to a place where revolutionary teachers wanted to show the world that clones have a soul and are real people. This sounds like an honorable idea and it is nice to have some people trying to protest this system. But at a closer look their intentions were better than their actions. Miss Emily says her plan was to break through the world’s ignorance of the donation program since people didn’t want to know where their fresh organs came from. But their methods are more than questionable. “We were able to give you something, something even now no one will ever take from you, and we were able to do that principally by sheltering you. […] Very well, sometimes that meant we kept things from you, lied to you. Yes, in many ways we fooled you.” So they tried to fight ignorance with ignorance. “You were simply pawns in a game. But think of it. You were lucky pawns.” That is probably the most telling sentence as it shows that the guardians at Hailsham also used the students for their own intentions, even if those intentions were to help the students. They didn’t care about their feelings and they did teach them to follow them blindly. And what exactly did they give them? An education? There is no point in that, not in our world the way school works, and even less there, where they have no use for education when they “complete.” What else, a childhood, as Miss Emily claims? They grew up to be detached people who have troubles showing emotions and follow authority until they die. In the end, Miss Emily makes clear that she feels disgusted by the thought of them, just like everyone else and Madame’s last line (“You poor creatures.”) doesn’t change that impression.
The book ends with Kathy looking at garbage hanging in a fence, which reminds her of “everything I’d ever lost since my childhood”, connecting her precious education at Hailsham to, well, garbage. Does she actually think her childhood was worth nothing, that it was wasted? There are some tears, so maybe she does realize what a waste all of their lives are but the last sentence reveals that she cannot overcome schooling. “I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be.” In the end, all that counts is where she is supposed to be by someone’s order, following authority literally till the story is over. And probably beyond that.
I think this is a brilliantly written novel that challenges the readers to think and asks a lot of them. There is much more in that book then I wrote about, not the least the question of the ethics of cloning but nevertheless also the ethics of our school system, authority, ignorance and pretense.
Tomorrow I’ll write about the movie adaptation.