Tragedy in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

Sometimes you write 2,000 words in 2 hours because you just can’t stop thinking about a book you read.

Never Let Me Go is Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 quietly atmospheric dystopian novel which centers on Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy as they grow from childhood into adulthood. In rural England, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy grow up secluded from the outside world but are constantly reminded by the teachers at their posh boarding school that they are incredibly special children. As they grow up, they come to realize the ways in which they’re different from the rest of the people in the world, and they all deal with the truth in different ways.

Major spoilers ahead. Also, probably typos because I wrote this in one coffee-frenzied sitting.

Dreaming of something better

Let’s talk about Ruth as a character, her journey, and what it means in the context of the world she lives in. Ruth was the kind of person who used to dream. She wanted to work in an office with her friends, an office where there would be “the plants, the gleaming office equipment, the chairs with their swivels and castors” (144). She dreamed of another kind of life even as she knew it wasn’t available to her. There was no way out of the life she led as a clone.

This is in contrast to Kathy, who, as she narrates the novel, is usually matter-of-fact about the circumstances of her life. She will donate her organs to strangers she’s never met. She will never be able to have children. She will never truly belong to the larger world because she isn’t like the rest of the normal people in the world. She’s a clone, and Hailsham and the students she’s grown up with are her world; the world outside has never been hers.

And truthfully, even if she did want to claim the outside world as her own, the rest of the people in the world would never let her.

Kathy has no illusions.

But Ruth, her best friend, hopes so hard that she even inspires Kathy, despite Kathy’s determined realism. Ruth describe her “dream future” — this lovely, futuristic office environment — with such desire that even Kathy wonders “if maybe it was all feasible: if one day [they] might all of [them] move into a place like that and carry on [their] lives together” (144). Kathy allows herself to imagine such a future for them, one in which they are almost normal people. Kathy explains of their “dream futures”:

I’m not sure what was going on in our heads… Maybe once Hailsham was behind us, it was possible, just for that half year or so, before all the talk of becoming carers, before the driving lessons… it was possible to forget for whole stretches of time who we really were… (142)

They even catch the tiniest glimpse of what it might be like to be “normal” in a Dover art gallery. They’re in town, looking for Ruth’s clone model, her “possible”, and they follow her into an art gallery, but Ruth’s possible leaves, another woman approaches them.

Eventually, the silver-haired lady came out from behind her desk… and asked: “Are you art students?”

“Not exactly,” I said before Tommy could respond. “We’re just, well, keen.”

The silver-haired lady beamed, then started to tell us how the artist whose work we were looking at was related to her, and all about the artist’s career thus far… we gathered round her to listen, the way we might have done at Hailsham when a guardian started to speak. (164)

This moment is notable because they’re treated just like any other teenagers in the world might be treated. It’s a glimpse of normality.

This Dover trip marks the end of Ruth’s dreaming, at least for herself. The woman she hoped was her clone model doesn’t look like her, after all, and she feels stupid for hoping.

…turning to Chrissie and Rodney [Ruth] went on: “…We all know it, so why don’t we all face it. We’re not modelled from that sort… We’re modelled from trash. Junkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps. Convicts, maybe… That other woman in there, her friend, the old one in the gallery. Art students, that’s what she thought we were. Do you think she’d have talked to us if she’d know what we really were? What do you think she’d have said if we ask her? ‘Excuse me, but do you think your friend was ever a clone model?’ She’d have thrown us out.

No more dreaming for Ruth, nor for Kathy, either. While the rumor of getting a deferral in the name of love takes hold of Tommy and briefly enchants Kathy with possibility, they all ultimately lose faith and lose track of each other.

Resignation to her reality, hopeful for her friends

[Tommy] put up a hand to shield his eyes. “I wasn’t much good as a carer… I’m a pretty good donor, but I was a lousy carer.”

No one spoke for a while. Then Ruth said, her voice quieter now:

“I think I was a pretty decent carer. But five years felt about enough for me. I was like you, Tommy. I was pretty much ready when I became a donor. It felt right. After all, it’s what we’re supposed to be doing, isn’t it?” (227)

What strikes me is Ruth’s use of “supposed to be” here, which is echoed by other characters throughout the novel. There is no room to grow beyond their intended purpose; they were created to donate their organs when they reach an age of maturity, and that’s all they can ever do. Ruth has been changed by the reality of spending five years caring for clones just like herself, who are donating their organs and dying for it. Her old friends are “completing,” or dying, and she’s no longer got room for dreaming of another kind of life.

Not for herself, anyway. At this point, too, she’s ill and hasn’t recovered well from her donations. Whether or not anyone will say it, she’s resigned herself to her own oncoming death, which she knows will be sooner rather than later. She won’t survive past her second donation.

She still dreams, but no longer for herself: for Kathy and Tommy, who are in love.

“Kathy, listen,” Ruth said. “You and Tommy, you’ve got to try and get a deferral. If it’s you two, there’s got to be a chance. A real chance.” (233)

Because Kathy and Tommy have been quietly loving each other for years, and their quiet affection and bond means that if anyone could disrupt the track on its way to their inevitable deaths, it’s them. Tommy and Kathy could have a real shot at spending a few years together and not dying so young.

No Hope

Of course, that’s not what happens. There are no deferrals, no softness for clones in this world. As Madame tries to explain to Kathy, the kindness of old world will not keep hold of the students, and they will inevitably be tumbled forward into their fates. They never had a choice at all. In the face of Tommy’s looming death, Kathy and Tommy’s relationship falls apart, but they have an interesting conversation before they part for good.

Then, as we were sitting in the dull light, side by side on the edge of his bed, he said to me:

“… don’t you get tired of being a carer? All the rest of us, we became donors ages ago. You’ve been doing it for years. Don’t you sometimes wish, Kath, they’d hurry up and send you your notice?” (282)

What I read in Tommy’s line is the same resignation expressed earlier by Ruth, but to a greater degree, now that he knows there’s no chance at all for him and Kathy to have any part kind of normal relationship with each other, untouched by the fact of what they are. After all, if they’re going to die, anyway, why waste time? They might as well get on with their fate if there’s no chance to defer it. He says as much when reflecting on the debate between Miss Emily and Miss Lucy.

Miss Emily, at this point, has told them of the debate, which amounted to whether it was better to raise the clones in ignorance of their role in the world while continuing to educate them and let them express their creative souls, or whether it might be better to tell them the truth even if the clones conclude that their art and writing is pointless since they’re going to be killed, anyway. Miss Lucy believed in informing the students; Miss Emily did not.

… as we were going down a particularly dark lane in the back of nowhere, he said suddenly, “I think Miss Lucy was right. Not Miss Emily.” (273)

In other words, better to know the truth and accept your fate rather than live with the illusion that you actually matter to the wider world.

Kathy, for the most part, holds her feelings close to her chest throughout the novel, but when she does confess her feelings to the reader, she’s resigned and realistic. As always, matter-of-fact. But her response to Tommy asking if she wouldn’t rather just get it over with, get on with her life’s purpose already, contains the subtlest hints of a rebellion:

I shrugged. “I don’t mind. Anyway, it’s important there are good carers. And I’m a good carer.” (282)

In other words, Kathy might be a clone, but she has more to contribute more to the world than just her organs. She says as much on the very first page:

I do know for a fact they’ve been pleased with my work, and by and large, I have too. My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as “agitated,” even before fourth donation. Okay, maybe I am boasting now. But it means a lot to me, being able to do my work well, especially that bit about my donors staying “calm.” I’ve developed a kind of instinct around donors. (3)

She has a lot more to offer the world than people might think she does, and to a degree, the mysterious powers-that-be have recognized that by letting her be a carer for a full 12 years before becoming an organ donor.

Miss Lucy vs. Miss Emily

By the end of novel, I agreed with Miss Lucy, too.

The effect of the students being kept ignorant means that the students never had any agency, no chance to rebel or protest that their lives are unfair. They don’t even fully understand what it means to be a normal person who can choose to be an actress or even just work in an office. These career options aren’t available to them because their only purpose — in the minds of normal people, anyway — is to donate all their vital organs and endlessly sacrifice their own lives and their own potential for people they’ve never met. They’re not only denied a full picture of what their role in the world is, but they’re also denied the chance to realize how monstrously inhumane their lives are. After all, what does it matter if they’re well-read and clever and might want children and fall in love if they’re just going to be sacrificed, anyway?

They’re only going to get sacrificed by a world that can’t even bring themselves to acknowledge this horrible thing they’re asking, that refuses to even see them as human.

In a different novel, had the students understood their role in the world, had they not been raised separately on different estates all over the country, had they not been constantly been split up and moved around and kept ignorant, they might’ve had a chance to rebel against the cruelty of their world.