Essay on 'Never Let Me Go' Humanity

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Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is centered around the fleeting nature of life as it is cherished through memories of the past. In a setting that imitates human existence, the characters exist awaiting their end. The novel depicts the ultimate submission of love, art, and other human endeavors to mortality. The euphemistic nature of the clones' lives serves a dual function by showcasing the naturalized cloning industry while hinting at the predetermined and inevitable end that the clones face. Echoing the way human beings talk about death and its related concepts, positive-sounding words are used to refer to such ideas. Clinging to memories of the past, Kathy finds solace, and in turn, accepts her fate with serenity, in this sense, the clones’ story functions as a metaphor for the human condition, with the protagonist's passive acceptance of her situation poignantly expresses the human ability to accept what appears to be a cruel and limited fate. Overall, the novel showcases how a growing awareness of one’s fate and the way one copes with this pressure and anxiety results in an understanding of the inevitable nature of mortality. In the novel, memory serves to assuage the psychological trauma that is imparted by death.

The novel begins with an autobiographical self-introduction: “‘My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years’”(Ishiguro, 3). Even though there is an active present story in the novel, the primary story takes place in her childhood. This begins the story by creating a distance between the narrating and experiencing self that is gradually bridged as the novel progresses, as Kathy ends by describing a recent experience, her trip to Norfolk with Tommy before his death. The nature of memories is fleeting yet consistent throughout the novel, as they penetrate Kathy’s present to create a temporary barrier against the imminent reality of death that the characters slowly approach. The memory of Hailsham is introduced in the first chapter of the novel, as Kathy mentions:

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There have been times over the years when I’ve tried to leave Hailsham behind when I’ve told myself I shouldn’t look back so much. But there came a point when I just stopped resisting. It had to do with this particular donor I had once, in my third year as a carer; it was his reaction when I mentioned I was from Hailsham...He could hardly breathe, but he looked towards me and said: ‘Hailsham. I bet that was a beautiful place’’(Ishiguro, 5).

Kathy’s relentless impulse to reflect on her past, despite her struggle to forget, is characteristic of the unrest imbued in the rest of the novel. In these first few lines, Hailsham established an irresistible presence, its dominion widespread and stark over its former students like Kathy and those outside of the institution. She is at once intimidated by her past but prideful of her upbringing at Hailsham. The immovable hold that memories like this can exert over an individual is aptly characterized in this instant, as Kathy is unable to resist reflecting on her past. She finds consolatory power in her shared history with Hailsham. But Hailsham’s upbringing infuses knowledge of death from an early age. Madame, who is a distant but omnipresent figure in the students’ lives, is afraid of them, “in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders”. They were unable to comprehend how it would feel, “being seen like that, being the spiders” (Ishiguro, 35). Being equated to insects reinforces the reproach that Madame seems to radiate at the time, though it may be for unexplained reasons, creating a lasting impact on the students. In another instance, Mrs. Lucy’s disagreement with the institution’s policy of withholding information from the students prompts her to explain their destined path to them. The students’ perception once again changes shifts, as their fate is unraveled in this instance:

It was after that day, jokes about donations faded away, and we started to think properly about things. If anything, the donations went back to being a subject to be avoided, but not in the way it had been when we were younger. This time round it wasn’t awkward or embarrassing anymore; just somber and serious (Ishiguro, 88).

Instances of clarity like this one contribute to the euphemistic instillation of the truth about the clones’ fate. This passage also mirrors how children of taught about death in general, as they perceive or retain more of the same information they have been imbued with from a young age. At this point, Kathy and her friends experience an aversion to their future as donors, but at this stage, the topic has become one that is “somber and serious”. Thus, the change in attitude marks a shift to the reality of the clones’ existence as is foreshadowed in this scene.

The pressure that human beings face from the awareness of finitude is mirrored and reflected not only by Kathy but male protagonist, Tommy as well. After finding out that deferrals do not exist, Tommy briefly retreats to his former self, “raging, shouting, flinging his fists and kicking out” (Ishiguro, 274). The anxiety and fear that death evokes in Tommy is a humanizing quality, one that in the following passage imbues an unconscious fear that sinks deep into the minds of the clones as they mature:

‘I was thinking,’ I said, ‘about back then, at Hailsham, when you used to go bonkers like that, and we couldn’t understand it. We couldn’t understand how you could ever get like that…I was thinking maybe the reason you used to get like that was because at some level you always knew.’ (Ishiguro, 275).

Tommy dismisses the idea at first, but after a while, he says: “...maybe I did know somewhere deep down. Something the rest of you didn’t’”(Ishiguro, 275). The impermanence of their lives underlies this scene as they both look back on their past. Kathy’s placid narration adds to the tense undertone, leading to a fundamental reevaluation of ingrained values and lifestyles from the past that persists into the present. The abrupt outburst of contempt that Tommy expresses is followed by a passive acceptance of their fate as they drive back home. This is representative of the inconsistencies in human emotions that rage uncontrolled at times but are contained at other times. After the initial outburst, Kathy and Tommy regard their future with an alarming passivity:

And so we stood together like that, at the top of that field, for what seemed like ages, not saying anything, just holding each other, while the wind kept blowing and blowing at us, tugging our clothes, and for a moment, it seemed like we were holding onto each other because that was the only way to stop us being swept away into the night (Ishiguro, 274).

Time is suspended for Tommy and Kathy in this scene as it is a testament to the thwarted hope of getting a deferral. For the first time, they are forced to rely on each other, “holding onto each other” to stop being “swept away” by the unraveling of their fate.

The euphemization of death in the novel eases the impact of its approach on the characters by naturalizing it into their lives from a young age. Rather than using scientific vernacular, Ishiguro introduces a small set of simple words to refer to the different stages of the clones’ lives. In the first chapter, Kathy introduces herself as a ‘carer’ providing a vague introduction into her responsibilities. Soon the reader comes to view it to be practical for Ishiguro’s world to be composed of a set of ‘students,’ ‘carers,’ and ‘donors’ while retaining a limiting knowledge of the connotations of these terms. Similarly, Kathy’s teachers are called ‘guardians,’ foreshadowing a role that extends beyond that of a teacher. In this way, the enterprise of cloning is humanized, and regarded with empathy. This mirrors how death is treated as well. ‘Donations’ are casually used to refer to the brutal extraction of vital organs at the end of which the clones ‘complete’ or die. Such euphemisms severely downplay how death is served in the novel. Virginia Yeung, a scholar from The University of Hong Hong, suggests in her piece on “Mortality and Memory in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go,” that “such euphemisms are closely linked to the notion of death because cloning is a science born out of human beings’ wish to exercise control over their mortality” (Yeung, 2). Yeung infringes upon the clones’ humanistic quality of trying to exert control over their fate by euphemizing it to fit their envision for the future.

Kathy’s allegorical discourse is carefully orchestrated in their emotional range, and her stories hold an inadequacy that lends to the reality of gaps between memory and truth. The fragile nature of memories of the past is made more apparent when she clearly states that “‘I might have some of it wrong’”(Ishiguro, 13), “‘I don’t remember exactly’”(Ishiguro, 25). Phrases such as “‘the way I remember it’” (Ishiguro, 138). “‘My memory of it is that…’”(Ishiguro, 146) conveys a more believable narrative by prefacing the elusive nature of memories. The uncertainties in Kathy’s narration also convey her inability to fully unravel her past at Hailsham, and the particularities of the events that led to the present. Kathy’s rediscovery of the past creates a nostalgia that allows her to reconnect emotionally with her friends, recreating the feelings of attachment that are characteristic of all living things. Memory serves as something that one can fall back on as they near the eventuality of death. As Virginia Yeung suggests, memory takes on a unique significance in the novel as it is “not used as a means of self-deception, denial or suppression in this story. It serves a pathetic and yet worthwhile function of being soothing and consolatory” (Yeung, 9). Memory thus serves as a safety net for the clones. They long to suspend the past, which partly contributes to their passivity throughout the whole novel, as they are partially living in the illusion of their past. Thus, Kathy’s autobiographical narrative is a final attempt to reconfigure her traumatic past and to assert some form of autonomy in the face of a brutal and uncontrollable fate.

While memories create an illusion that dispels the encroachment of death and reassures the individual of their place in society, it can also induce passivity about the future. Shameen Black from Johns Hopkins University discusses the general question of what it means to be human, and how the resignation of the characters in the novel to their fate contributes to the anticlimactic setup that Ishiguro creates in his piece “Ishiguro’s Inhuman Aesthetics”. The lack of meaning and passivity is contrasted by the importance placed on art and creativity. According to Black, the “practice of circulating artwork reflects the circulations of vital body parts, it furthers central assumptions that work to repress the students’ possible resistance” (Black, 795). There exists an ironic interaction between art and its intended purpose in the novel. While it is meant to encourage the philosophy of individual worth, it assumes the opposite function in the novel as it is used to convey“how you were regarded at Hailsham, how much you were liked and respected, [it] had to do with how good you were at ‘creating’”(Ishiguro, 16). This bonds the students to one another and implicates self-worth as a point of comparison between two individuals.

Anne Whitehead from the University of Wisconsin discusses how the language that Ishiguro employs in the novel takes on a distinct resonance of what it means to “care” for someone in her piece called “Writing with Care: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.” She comments on how “carers” redefine the concept of empathy as being more ambiguous and no longer representing inherent virtue. She mentions that “in the tension between engagement and disengagement, holding on and letting go, Ishiguro charges us with the questions of care: are we “good carers,” who will hold onto this imagined past that has...become our present?” (Whitehead, 81). Even though the characters are raised in sealed realities like Hailsham, they come to embody authentic feelings that raise questions about their fundamental humanness. Kathy and her friends find ways to struggle against their inevitable end, which is the ultimate humbling quality that Ishiguro presents in the novel. Their persistent attempts to change their future mirror the humanistic stubbornity and willingness of the characters to make their fate.

Never Let Me Go as a novel presents through euphemistic writing a recollective allegory that highlights the abridgment of memory and mortality. Kathy revisits the past to find solace and escape from her future. And while recollecting, the euphemized truths of clones’ lives unravel, creating a gradual convergence of the past and the present. This essay in particular explores how memory provides a safe space to retreat for the clones in the novel.

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