Essay on 'Never Let Me Go' Meaning

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Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” is an enthralling dystopian story whose appalling end contains an underwhelming surprise. When we discover, along with the narrator and other characters, the reality of the society they live in, we may or may not be surprised, depending on how carefully we have been reading the story and keeping track of details such as how Kathy H’s impeccable memory helps her uncover the truth about Norfolk and the rest of society. Probably most readers anticipate Kathy and the others to fight the system or run away because Ishiguro carefully prepares the groundwork for the discovery as the characters force their way into their past to uncover the mysterious aspects of Hailsham and Norfolk, “Memories, even your most precious ones, fade surprisingly quickly. But I don’t go along with that. The memories I value the most, I don’t see them ever fading” (261). But very few readers, if any, are prepared for the story’s final paragraph when we realize that Kathy decides to accept her depressing fate “The fantasy never got beyond that—I didn’t let it” (The second to last sentence of the story). This last paragraph produces the reality of the story and an extraordinary revelation about Kathy’s character.

The final paragraph seems like the right place to begin a discussion of this story because the dull ending not only creates a stalwart emotional effect in us but also proposes an important question about what we are to think of Kathy. Is this lonely, restrained woman solely damaged? All the circumstantial evidence indicated that she is hopeless and despondent, and yet Ishiguro titles the story “Never Let Me Go,” as if she is due some kind of tribute. The title somehow qualifies the gasp of disappointment that the story leads up to in the final paragraph. Why would Kathy just let everything go? What is behind the title?

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The Artifice, an online magazine, once analyzed the meaning of the title and said:

“While Ishiguro’s title “Never Let Me Go” suggests that the story will be about holding on, namely to relationships and memories, the story also explores the value of letting things go as a way to transform and mature” (“Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go: The Transformation of 'Letting Go'”).

This statement explains some of Kathy’s motivation to make sense of her memories before she becomes a donor, but it does not address the purpose and meaning of the title. If Kathy tried to save herself and Tommy out of her apprehensions—out of her newfound love—how does that explain the fact that the titles seem to suggest that the story is a way of gratifying Kathy? The question remains.

Whatever gratification the story creates for Kathy cannot be the result of her actions. Surely there can be no convincing excuse made for letting your lover proceed with his last donation and completing; there is nothing to praise about what she does. Instead, the tribute comes in the form of how her story is told rather than what the reader is told about her. To do this, Ishiguro uses Kathy as the narrator herself in such a way as to maximize our sympathy for her. The grim information about Kathy’s final plans to discover Norfolk’s secrets is withheld until the very end not only to produce a surprise but to permit the reader to develop a sympathetic understanding of her before we are shocked and disgusted by what she did due to finding out the secrets.

Significantly, the narrator, Kathy, begins the story with a description of herself and what she does for a living. Though several online articles discuss the story’s narrator (see, for example, Dafs; Menand; Mullan; and Wood), Danijela Mazar’s is one of the most comprehensive in its focus on the narrator’s effects on the reader’s response to Kathy. As Mazar points out, one of the most fascinating features of “Never Let Me Go” is the obvious distance between the narrator, Kathy, and the reader. “When a novel’s narrative situation exhibits considerable peculiarity, this has the effect of drawing attention to the role of the reader and of the reading experience in understanding the context relevant to the novel’s theme” (Mazar 3) As Kathy and her fellow “creatures” (Ishiguro 267) are, via their education and training, placed substantially apart from ‘normal’ people as indisputably and fundamentally different, so it must be that the readers not being clones, have no alternative but to find themselves placed isolated from Kathy. Kathy is an unreliable narrator. She often declares that she may be misremembering specific portions of her memories. In one part of the story, Kathy admits to recalling one of her memories differently than her former friends, Tomy and Ruth. These mannerisms exhibit the unreliability of consciousness itself. Therefore, Karhty’s memories are discursive and fragmentary. Due to this, there is little information on why Ishiguro chose this narrative technique. The narrator, Kathy, is certainly not a ‘normal’ human being; she is a clone in the society of Norfolk. The reader, however, is ‘normal’, they are not clones. Right off the bat, the reader finds out that Kathy is living in a fictional world and she is a fictional character. Kathy knows what she is, a clone conceived to develop and donate organs and ‘complete’ so that ‘normal’ humans could perhaps obtain a greater standard of living. She, as opposed to most scholars she grew up with at Hailsham, has worked as a carer for approximately twelve years. Although she is moderately youthful compared to an adult, most of her colleagues have passed. She spends the rest of her days recollecting her memories of her former colleagues. As the reader begins the story, they do not know much about Kathy’s world. Instead of having the reader and author know more about the narrator—which would make the narrator more reliable—Ishiguro unites his and Kathy’s knowledge so that the reader is inferiorly informed. However, this does allow the reader to obtain a conspiracy about Kathy’s society, which can twist what Kathy says at the beginning of the story. Hailsham is “something we’d all grow up with… I’m sure I was pretty typical in not being able to remember how or when I’d first heard about it” (Ishiguro 31). The narrator’s account of their secretiveness and mysteriousness causes the reader to be anxious about Kathy’s eccentric life before the reader finds out Kathy’s intentions. The reader admires her for taking charge of her role as narrator. They also admire her for how self-assured she can be. The author makes sure this feeling happens to the reader before what she decides to do at the end of the story.

The readers do not know much about Kathy at the time that she is telling her story, but they do not a lot about what kind of person Kathy is in her past when she shares her memories. Kathy vigilantly shields her emotions. Although it may seem as if Kathy’s love for Tommy becomes increasingly clear as the narrative unfolds, she does not explicitly explain the depths of her feelings for him. The reader discovers, for example how her recital is idiosyncratic since the events are from her point of view. She does not recollect her memories in an austere chronological sequence. Kathy constantly discontinues one memory to share a relevant memory from a different stage of her life (for a detailed piece of work about Ishiguro’s writing style, see Maryam K and Blumenthal’s revision). Her memories furthermore show her dependence on taciturnity and lack of straightforwardness, notably when it comes to displaying her sentiments. For example, Kathy often manifests her displeasure with Ruth by walking away instead of directly confronting her. She constantly agonizes about being noticed or eavesdropped, especially when she converses with her former lover, Tommy. Kathy is the outsider in her memories, meticulously observing those around her. She discerns the complex aspects of the other characters’ behavior. By the time the reader realizes her final choice, they are already inclined to the idea that Kathy will now express herself as she did by sharing her memories. That’s not to say that the choice of doing nothing is justified by Kathy, but it is to say that her life reserves its intimate—though no longer secret—character. Despite the detailed memories, Kathy remains reserved and complicated “I was watching her as carefully as ever in those days” (Ishiguro 72).

As many may have forgotten, Kathy’s favorite Judy Bridgewater song is titled, “Never Let Me Go.” The song is perhaps about an infant or a partner and keeping someone or keeping someone close. It is about not letting go. The author’s meaning of the title in the means of Kathy is all these things—especially memory. “I won't be a carer anymore come the end of the year, and though I've got a lot out of it, I have to admit I'll welcome the chance to rest—to stop and think and remember. I'm sure it's at least partly to do with that, to do with preparing for the change of pace, that I've been getting this urge to order all these old memories” (Ishiguro 34) This quote in the novel is ironic because none of her memories are told in order. But then again, maybe Kathy meant to order it not chronologically but with some other system that is personal to her. Each memory she tells does have some sort of correlation from within itself. Perhaps she ordered them from her least important memories to her most memorable ones. Whichever way the narrator decides, the order has a big significance to the ending of the story. Ishiguro does not offer a definitive reading of Kathy, but he does, in a way through Kathy’s character, pay tribute to her by attempting to provide a complex set of contexts for her memories—memories that include the maturation and “growing up” of the characters, the individual goals of each character compared to the social expectation of Hailsham and Norfolk, the pattern of losing and finding both people and objects, the aspects of life, death, and humanity, and the interpretations of love, care, and dignity. These memories transported Kathy to the past because she could not handle living in her present. Harry Woolf discusses the reader’s efforts to understand Kathy:

“The whole idea of Kathy and Tommy failing to acquire a deferral set a gloomy mood for the end of the novel, the plot has become somewhat predictable with the reader now assuming that both Kathy and Tommy are now essentially the ‘living dead’, as they are just waiting to die now. .” (Woolf)

The reader and the characters both knew that it was Kathy and Tommy’s last chance for survival. Therefore, Kathy left a tense and sad atmosphere pursuing the option of no option for their survival. It is as if the novel is structured in a loop. Kathy seems to have the same dull emotions at the end of the story as she does in the beginning. The reader loses the connection with Kathy right as she lets go of Tommy, and lets him go to his death. In a way, the reader also feels that the ‘spark’ from within Kathy since the start has died out. The virtuousness of Kathy that followed her throughout the novel has disappeared.

The author refuses to dismiss Kathy as a character who simply gives up. Instead, Ishiguro’s narrative method brings the reader into Kathy’s life before they too nimbly renounce her, and in doing so it allows the reader a complicated ingenious manner of fervent perseverance and strength linked with delusions and unexpected idiosyncrasies. Kathy never letting go is a tribute to the fact that Kathy is “so happy, but she’s so afraid something will happen” (Ishiguro 64) 

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Essay on ‘Never Let Me Go’ Meaning. (2024, May 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 14, 2024, from
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