Genres And The Identity In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go And Jennifer Egan’s Black Box

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In this essay, I will explore the way Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Jennifer Egan’s Black Box deal with genre and identity. Ishiguro combines science-fiction and bildungsroman in his work to depict the touching story of a human clone, Kathy H, as she develops from childhood and faces her fatal destiny as an organ donor and to explore the politics of a system that seeks to delegitimise her identity and exploit her. Similarly, Egan’s work explores science-fiction paired with the espionage genre and how a cybernetically enhanced spy can carry out her patriotic duty without comprising her sense of self. I will argue that these authors manipulate and subvert conventional genres to pose questions of what constitutes humanity in dehumanised dystopian settings as well as that they provide frameworks within Never Let Me Go and Black Box with which a contemporary reader can critique the exploitation of those deemed inhuman by the governments present in their works.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go imagines an alternate version of the 1990s as a dystopian reality where science has advanced to allow human cloning for the express purpose of harvesting organs for transplants. The combination of science-fiction and bildungsroman is not typical due to how deeply entrenched the latter is in a nineteenth-century setting . However, as Ishiguro demonstrates, the two genres are not mutually exclusive and can indeed complement one another. As Carol Guesse’s exploration of Never Let Me Go states, the work fits many of the criteria needed for a bildungsroman; the boarding school narrative, internal development of our hero, the emphasis on art and culture and the ‘shaping of the protagonist through the experience of numerous obstacles one encounters whilst trying to became an adult,’ . Throughout Kathy H’s narrative we are given an in depth look into her upbringing at Hailsham school, specifically formed to protest the government’s inhumane treatment of clones. In a typical bildungsroman, Guesse explains that, ‘in such a story, the hero follows an educational programme and is subject to an external pressure or influence which helps shape him, for example a teacher’ . While Kathy’s experience follows this formula, Ishiguro uses this seemingly banal setting to lay the foundations of a sinister system wherein the clones are ‘told and not told’ about their role as donors as Miss Lucy, a guardian, tells them. This method used by the school to ‘[smuggle] into our [the clones] heads a lot of basic facts about our futures’ normalises their horrible fate and ensures that the children consider the process of donations and, ultimately, their death as commonplace and as their duty. As Stacy Ivan notes, ‘the protagonists’ failure to acknowledge the atrocities contributes to the perpetuation of the dystopian systems.’ This early acceptance of their purpose guarantees that the students will not rebel against the system and is an incredibly effective contribution from Ishiguro as the discomfort that stems from the complete submission of the clones allows the reader to consider how unjust their treatment is and consequently critique the imagined world order in Never Let Me Go.

In traditional bildungsroman narratives, the maturation of the protagonist is dependent on socialisation and being accepted in mainstream society. Again, this is true for Never Let Me Go as Kathy’s social relationships are what drive the plot and her personal growth. However, during a discussion with Tommy, Kathy recalls that they ‘had been taught to think about each other.’ In teaching the children to only consider themselves, Hailsham is once again ensuring that the clones will not concern themselves with the outside world and perhaps preparing them for roles as carers where they will have to look after each other professionally. Interestingly, this is a departure from the classic bildungsroman form wherein the protagonist learns to join and flourish in society. Ishiguro’s characters leave Hailsham and ‘gradually de-socialise themselves’ as Guesse aptly states, ‘They leave a community where they were never set aside to lead lives of outcasts in a society that needs them as much as it fears them.’ The shift from a boarding school setting to general society usually marks a similar shift from childhood to maturity but despite this Never Let Me Go emphasises how Kathy H and her peers are alienated by a populace who ‘did their best not to think about you.’ as Miss Emily explains to Kathy and Tommy, ‘[T]hey wanted you back in the shadows.’ Consequently, Kathy spends the majority of her time (after her brief stint at the cottages) travelling alone, dealing with medical staff or with whichever donor she is caring for. By sentencing his protagonist to a mostly solitary life, Ishiguro reinforces the horror of a system that demands that these clones be isolated from the very people they sacrifice themselves for.

W.H Bruford says succinctly that ‘social relationships matter less for themselves than for [what] they help articulate’ and in a novel which questions whether clones have souls, the attachments Kathy forms, with Ruth and Tommy especially, articulate that these beings born of science are just as capable of love and a full spectrum of emotion as their counterparts in wider society. Love is what drives Kathy and Tommy to seek out their Hailsham Headmistress so that they may put in a request to defer their donations for a short while and be together. Here, the emphasis placed on art in the bildungsroman comes into play and the pair use their art as evidence that they are truly in love as, Tommy explains to Miss Emily, ‘it would help show you what we [Tommy and Kathy] were like,’ because ‘[o]therwise how would you know when students came to you and said they were in love?’ The idea that these characters must prove their love is striking, particularly as this test comes near the conclusion of the novel and the reader has already witnessed the proof of their devotion to one another over hundreds of pages. The injustice of Kathy’s position is only solidified at the book’s close after both Ruth and Tommy have been taken from her by a ruthless government system and she is left in mourning without any more meaningful relationships to speak of.

Moreover, Francois Jost asserts ‘The shaping of the protagonist through the experience of numerous obstacles one encounters whilst trying to become an adult is the principal defining feature of the bildungsroman.’ These obstacles present themselves as ‘events that are not inherently meaningful or exceptional’ but which retrospectively become significant. Never Let Me Go has several of these moments for Kathy which allow for personal growth, for example, her struggle coming to terms with her libido and the idea of a possible as well as the emotional turmoil of her turbulent relationships with Tommy and Ruth. However, I maintain that in Ishiguro’s interpretation of the bildungsroman that these moments are written to impress upon the reader the futility of the protagonist’s struggles. Even Kathy voices frustration at the things she has been made to do under the direction of Hailsham officials in spite of their knowledge of where she and the others will end up, ‘Why did we do all of that work in the first place? Why train us, encourage us, make us produce all of that [art]? If we’re just going to give donations anyway, then die, why all those lessons? Why all those books and discussions?’

Ultimately, both the reader and Kathy are hyper-aware that her fate as a donor is inevitable and that despite the pains she takes to mature into a well-adjusted adult, she is doomed to be used for her organs and discarded. Ishiguro’s message here is a melancholy one and would be in opposition to Jost who has declared that bildungsroman must end happily , however, Susan Suleiman contends that ‘they can have a positive or negative ending, the only difference being the message they send’ This aligns itself nicely with the novelist’s bittersweet use of bildungsroman which seems to communicate the dangers of exploitation and the moral quandary involved in cloning technology in lieu of the traditional tale of social assimilation.

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In Jennifer Egan’s work wherein an unnamed heroine, cybernetically enhanced by the American government, undertakes a mission for data acquisition there are enough nods to the espionage genre that Black Box can be considered commentary and even a manipulation of the genre.To contextualise, Allan Hepburn’s novel on the culture of espionage provides excellent examples of what defines the genre and its protagonists in terms of recruitment, convictions, gender and ideology. Egan’s speaker seems to fit the criteria for the first of Hepburn’s stipulations, ‘Recruitment appeals to an individual’s desire to serve the state, not to swerve from its power.’ Black Box’s protagonist is filled with joy at the prospect of fulfilling her patriotic duty and clearly states, ‘[A]t long last you’ve [the speaker] found a goal worthy of your considerable energies.’ and is propelled to complete her mission with the knowledge that ‘by accomplishing this goal, you’ll have helped to perpetuate American life as you [the speaker] know it.’ The desire to undertake her duty is stated explicitly and so Egan is in line with the first of the genre guidelines. Even so, she quickly departs from the norm and instead of fulfilling Hepburn’s second edict that the spy is ‘always a political identity with an allegory of intrigue,’ crucially has her protagonist be an average citizen; ‘You are an ordinary person undertaking an extraordinary task.’ This departure is perhaps the most striking in Egan’s work and is made possible because ‘Technology has afforded ordinary people a chance to glow in the cosmos of human achievement.’ This shift in the practicalities of espionage is made possible by cybernetic enhancement which allows anyone to be physically capable of reconnaissance and is praised as ‘The new heroism.’ where ‘the goal is to transcend individual life, with its petty pains and loves, in favour of the dazzling collective.’ The exaltation of the collective is not unusual in the espionage genre, however, it is made clear in Egan’s imagined world that the individual is of little value. This can be inferred from both from the title Black Box and from the language surrounding the agent’s overarching purpose; ‘Your [the agent’s] physical person is our Black Box; without it, we have no record of what has happened on your mission.’ The evolution of the spy from extraordinary individual with a very particular set of skills to ‘one of hundreds’ not only demystifies the mysterious traditional agent but dehumanises the protagonist and reduces her to a glorified data bank. This is cleverly reinforced throughout the work, particularly when the hero recalls her training: ‘Some of you will not survive, but those who do will be heroes.’ The very slight but noticeable difference in Egan’s phrasing emphasises that only those who manage to return their bodies to the government will be hailed as heroes and strongly implies that those who perish in their pursuit of their duty and fail to deliver their data a.k.a their bodies will be forgotten and dismissed as failures.

Further, Black Box presents a unique take on the espionage genre as unlike the traditional narrative in which the protagonist is permitted ‘his moments of revolt and anguish.’ Egan’s speaker is required to record almost all of her interactions using ‘Field instructions, stored in a chip beneath [the agent’s] hairline,’ which serves ‘as both a mission log and a guide for others undertaking this work.’ The near constant surveillance ensures behaviour out with the bounds of standard training is discourages and is nowhere near as relaxed as the procedures of the classic spy narrative where the leading man is granted full autonomy. Amelia Precup very succinctly describes the issue in that a woman is reduced to:

‘[A] technologically enhanced body, “programmed” to complete a mission while ceaselessly fighting human emotions and impulses, the disposable body used as a black box, instrumental to storing and transferring information, and the female body reduced to the status of a sexual object, raped, displayed as ornament and discarded when deemed useless.’

Despite the voluntary nature of the speaker’s service, the government’s apparent disregard for the agent’s wellbeing is a bitter pill to swallow and Egan seems to critique the system whereby she is purposefully placed in harms way as a ‘Beauty’ to be knowingly exploited and physically assaulted. The author’s use of ‘The Dissociation Technique’ as an escape from physical violation is notable and solidifies the prioritisation of body over consciousness as the protagonist becomes ‘fully detached from [her] physical self.’ The body of our hero is beaten and even shot before the end of her mission and though this is dismissed by her as one of necessary ‘forms of sacrifice.’ It is impossible to ignore the physical and mental burden of the task assigned to her. Not only is the agent’s physical heath at risk but Egan’s interpretation of cybernetic enhancement allows her memories to be forfeit, explained during a transfer of data to her body, ‘the memories dislodged will be your [the agent’s] own.’ The high cost of service is apparent and Katherine Hayles study is useful here as she examines the way ‘autonomy [and] individuality was being systematically challenged and disassembled — in a whole variety of fields, among them cybernetics.’ This idea that individuality has become obsolete in Egan’s imagined world is very effective in painting a harsh picture of a dystopian government that values the functionality of a body over the life of its citizens.

A shared aspect of both Kazuo Ishiguro’s and Jennifer Egan’s works is the emphasis that is placed on memory in Never Let Me Go and Black Box. In each work, memory is used as a pathway for the reader to the identity of each of the protagonists. John Locke’s philosophy that ‘personal identity [is] founded on consciousness (i.e. memory) and not on the substance of the body.’ is extremely helpful in examining the formation of identity in these works of science-fiction where the protagonists have been cloned and cybernetically enhanced, respectively, as both women use memory as a way to rationalise and cope with their traumatic experiences as well as to simply reminisce to the assumed listener. For Kathy H, Virginia Yeung asserts that ‘structuring one’s past experience and attempting to understand it as a unified whole is essentially an act of establishing an identity.’ And so the genre of bildungsroman itself works to structure and form the identity of Ishiguro’s protagonist. Strikingly, when Kathy H reflects on Tommy’s insistence that finding the original version of her lost tape is more important than finding a copy, she argues that the memories even the copy generate are just as important, ‘The memories I value most, I don’t ever see them fading. I lost Ruth, then I lost Tommy, but I won’t lose my memories of them’ Here, the contents of the vessel, whether it be the tape or Kathy herself as a copy, are held as valuable in themselves in a beautiful reflection of the book’s central themes. Indeed, Yeung insists ‘Kathy’s autobiographical narrative is a subversive act of protest [to] assert some form of autonomy in the face of a brutal regime.’ This furthers my belief that Ishiguro’s work is a statement against systemic exploitation of the marginalised and the underrepresented among us in society.

In Egan’s text, the presence of personal thoughts and memories is framed as an infringement upon the collection of ‘meaningful’ data and it is suggested in training that ‘Where stray or personal thoughts have intruded, you may delete them.’ The assumption that a person’s identity would be of no use is a cynical one yet Egan’s speaker proves throughout the piece that memories of her husband, her home and her past are extremely worthwhile and motivational. Memories of her husband and home are used to motivate and reinforce her convictions like so, ‘Reflect on the many reasons you can’t yet die: you need to see your husband. You need to have children. You need to tell the movie star that he has an eighth child, and that she is a hero.’ These small reassurances and reflections allow the reader to slip past the cold technological voice of the dispatches to the human identity underneath. The memories are spread sparingly throughout the work and in doing so, Egan, strips the speaker down to the bare essentials of who she is beyond an agent of government and impresses upon the reader the importance of individual identity. Interestingly, the narrative takes the notion of memory and applies it to both the human and technological parts of the protagonist; the dislodgement of memories due to the Data Surge, as discussed earlier in my analysis, ‘takes its toll on the individualistic centre of the traditional Western discourse,’ and brings Locke’s theory that identity can only be extended backwards as far as actions and thoughts can be recalled to the fore and begs the question – if the speaker dislodges certain memories, is a new identity formed and is she therefore a ‘new woman’? The answer to this question is unclear. However, in Ebony Daley-Carey’s study of postmodern identities they discuss the tendency in contemporary fiction to construct identities ‘as contradictory, unsettlingly and fluctuating, or as works-in-progress’ This trend in contemporary fiction is undoubtedly relevant to the formation of identity in Egan’s protagonist as her identity fluctuates due to the government mandated memory loss.

In both Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Jennifer Egan’s Black Box the authors take a classic genre, working in tandem with the science-fiction genre – bildungsroman and espionage, respectively – and alters them in meaningful ways in order to prioritise the critique and explore the theme of government exploitation. Using these altered genres and their conventions to highlight the formation of identity in characters who could be considered less than human as clones or as cyborgs is a striking way of delivering commentary on human rights and how we, as readers, interact with them.

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Genres And The Identity In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go And Jennifer Egan’s Black Box. (2021, September 06). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 24, 2024, from
“Genres And The Identity In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go And Jennifer Egan’s Black Box.” Edubirdie, 06 Sept. 2021,
Genres And The Identity In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go And Jennifer Egan’s Black Box. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 Apr. 2024].
Genres And The Identity In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go And Jennifer Egan’s Black Box [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 06 [cited 2024 Apr 24]. Available from:

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