Literary Analysis of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go in a Glance

The novel revolves around the lives of the three main characters-Kathy, Tommy and Ruth-as they struggle to piece together the shattered remains of their past.  Their story is narrated by Kathy as she brings to memory the events of their childhood at Hailsham in England toward the latter end of 1990.

Hailsham is reconstructed by Kathy as a unique school where the ‘normal’ merges with the strident echoes of the strange. With stirring subtlety, Kathy’s narration gradually paints the backdrop of the world they used to belong-and in away-still do in the present.  Through Kathy’s detailed recount, the reader discovers that the children/students at Hailsham were orphans who were made to donate their body parts and organs.  Kathy’s remembrances also bring the reader to the innocent and deep friendship she fostered with Tommy and Ruth at Hailsham as well as their enduring adoration for each other.

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Although the novel delves on the mysterious and the sinister, the tone of triviality dilutes it.  This is a distinct literary style Kazuo Ishiguro is known for; he muffles the themes of his stories and the inner struggles of his characters underneath the layers and pads of regularity and obscurity.

Kathy, the leading figure in the story, although trying to make sense of her existence and that of her friends through her recount of their days at Hailsham and their lives after, she does so in a manner that is understated and almost with an air of nonchalance. Kazuo Ishiguro infuses his works with this literary technique in order to avoid startling and overwhelming the reader with the ‘heaviness’ of the themes.  Through strained modulation and piecemeal revelation of details, the reader becomes a participant, a sharer in the heartaches and the self-discovery of the protagonist instead of a mere spectator and passive observer.

Hailsham, the source of much of the story’s conflict, is recreated by Kathy as a place that at once embraces and isolates.  At the start of the novel, Kathy remembers Hailsham with fondness, telling her donor patient, Ruth, about the easy, laidback lifestyle she recalls to having enjoyed with her friends. In Kathy’s own words:

“About our guardian, about how we each had our own collection chests under our beds, the football, the rounders, the little path that took you all round the outside of the main house, round all its nooks and crannies, the duck pond, the food, the view form the Art Room over the fields on a foggy morning” (Never Let me Go p 5).

As Hailsham shelters those inside with comfort and odd sense of normalcy, it creates at the same time an invisible barrier between the school and the world outside by setting itself different from the other educational institutions. Through its culture of seclusion, Kathy and her pals find themselves alone, isolated in their togetherness. Even in their adulthood, away from the walled space and experience of Hailsham, they continue to crawl their way through life unsure like a child still learning to trust his/her limbs and feet as s/he begins to walk. Their meager interaction with life’s realities during their childhood days at Hailsham left them permanently scathed, battered and bruised.

The thematic landscape of the novel is dire even with its overall subdued tone and atmosphere.  A reader has to screen, prick really hard to come up with more upbeat, positive themes underlying the darker, shadier ones.  Kazuo has a penchant for creating narratives that are overlaid with desperation, resignation and hopelessness as recurring themes.

In his work, The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro ends it with a forlorn scene-unbeknownst to the protagonist-where Stevens looks forward to continuing his duty as butler to his new employer, Mr. Faraday while sitting alone in a seaside bench.  What is poignantly touching and sad about this concluding passage is Stevens’ acceptance of his fate-of a life devoid of happiness, passion and love. The same existential themes of quiet desperation, search for self, emptiness, alienation abound in the narrative of Never Let Me Go.

Although the ‘mother’ themes are gray and dark in nature, the novel still drips and heaves with heartwarming elements.  As the title suggests, Never Let Me Go, touches on holding on, of not letting go- of the things that are dear and important. Kathy, out of her love and devotion to her friends Tommy and Ruth, kept her friendship and bond with them after years of being apart. What they have, after all, is the communion of spirits that share in the untold secrets of the past and the experiences that shaped and defined them- and this, Kathy recognizes and honors.

 The narrative of Never Let me Go is tied around the idea of cloning; Ishiguro chooses issues of cloning to thread together the details and events of the story into a comprehensible, cohesive work of fiction. However, cloning as a backdrop of the narrative does not ‘shout’, it settles instead into a muted setting all throughout the novel. What the reader solely relies on to pinpoint cloning as the background of the narrative are the vague referrals of the narrator. Ishiguro shuns a plethora of moralistic claims on the issue of cloning or on genetic engineering preferring to focus the spotlight on the characters as product of cloning-their response to it in the form of internal confrontation-and not cloning in (and of) itself.

One of the interesting aspects of cloning in relation to the narrative is the existence of freewill within the context of cloning. As sons and daughters of cloning, the question of whether freewill is a possibility and a reality becomes relevant in Kathy’s life and that of her friends. Kazuo Ishiguro shuns mentioning freewill in the narrative via Kathy’s poignant narration. Whether this is an intentional move on the part of Ishiguro or not remains to be ascertained.

What is clear is that by being unnamed explicitly in the novel it figures automatically as one of the leading themes if not the central theme of the narrative. Also, the position of Kazuo Ishiguro on the issue of freewill or more accurately the lack of it assumes that of a relay or a commentary than a denunciation. In other words, Ishiguro merely points out the effects of an unexercised freewill minus any ethical and moral ‘spanking’.

About the author

Kazuo Ishiguro is Japanese by nationality and now living in Great Britain. He was born in Nagasaki, Japan on November 08, 1954. The novels he has written include The Remains of the Day (1989), A Pale View of Hills (1982), An Artist of the Floating World (1986), When We Were Orphans (2000), The Unconsoled (1995).

Kazuo Ishiguro’s “narratives center on memories and their potential to digress and distort, to forget and to silence the past, and above all to haunt the present. The protagonists of his fiction seek to overcome loss (the personal loss of family members and lovers; the losses resulting from war) by making sense of the past through acts of remembrance” (Procter 2002.)

Kazuo Ishiguro on the Theme of Freewill

Freewill is unstated in the narrative and rightfully so since everything which matters and vital in the world of Kazuo Ishiguro’s characters lie meaningfully silent just waiting to be unearthed and interpreted by the reader.  By staying unmentioned, the theme of freewill rings the loudest-in a good way.

Kazuo Ishiguro raises the importance of freewill in human life by identifying the possible consequences of a fatalistic mindset and worldview. It is so easy to concentrate on what is there than on what is not and in the narrative of Never Let Me Go, a reader normally directs her attention to the themes that overcoat the plot or the story without giving attention to the components that give birth to the themes.

The lack, if not the absence of freewill is not taken favorably by Ishiguro.  It is certain that he upholds the power of freewill to human existence; Ishiguro believes that freewill is an integral component to achieving and maintaining happiness by setting an individual free-free to control and curb his own destiny and future.  Consequently, as is shown by Kazuo Ishiguro, the moment an individual surrenders his or her life to the undulating motion of fate or to the tagging of the past, s/he ends up a creature of misery and unhappiness.

It is a mistake to assume that Kazuo Ishiguro is an advocate of fatalism. Although Kathy and her friends might have accepted their fate without as much a cry of rebellion, it is not the intention of Ishiguro to commend such a passive reaction.  In fact, it is safe to infer that he regards passivity as a precursor to hopelessness and a quality not to be emulated.

The Contrast of Existential Themes and Freewill

Never Let Me Go is laden with existential themes of emptiness, dreariness, death/mortality, hopelessness, self-discovery and the like.  Kathy’s narration, her remembrances are all efforts to attach meaning and significance to the life she one lived and still does.  These dark themes run counter with the idea of freewill and its consequences.

Kazuo Ishiguro explores the relationship of existentialism and freewill in the narrative encouraging the reader to posit the following questions: “How important is the role of freewill to man’s existence? “To what extent can freewill be exercised in a world that curtails and discourages it? “How can an individual assert his or her freewill amidst dire circumstances?” “What are the direct consequences of a freewill unexercised?” “Can happiness, authenticity and freedom be achieved through assertion of freewill?   “Is freewill even possible within the context of cloning?”

Resignation and Freewill

The primary characters in the narrative are all resigned to the reality of their existence at Hailsham. Through Kathy’s matter-of-factly narration, the reader senses fatalism at work.  This unquestioning acceptance of their lives at Hailsham is a clear sign that there is a sordid lack of freewill in the young, innocent spirits of the characters-Kathy, Tommy and Ruth. Kazuo Ishiguro makes her characters submissive to demonstrate and identify what an absence of freewill is and what it means.

The following passages reveal the deep resignation of the leading figures in the narrative: That was when I first understood, really understood, just how lucky we’d been—Tommy, Ruth, me, all the rest of us. (p 5) (By admitting how fortunate they were despite the other grim, secret existence to Hailsham is an indicator of their acceptance of what transpired within the confines of their school.)

Driving around the country now, I still see things that will remind me of Hailsham. I might pass the corner of a misty field, or see part of a large house in the distance as I come down the side of a valley, even a particular arrangement of poplar trees up on a hillside, and I’ll think: “Maybe that’s it! I’ve found it! This actually is Hailsham!” (p. 5)

Kathy remembers Hailsham with fondness almost with a bewildering sense of affection. To a reader-as she looks back to this passage, after being carried through the subdued recounts of horrors Kathy, her friends and the rest of the students had to be put through at Hailsham in the latter pages of the book-it seems odd that Kathy seems to be missing her old school and expressing jubilation at the mere semblance of it in the arrangement of poplar trees. This is a crystal clear proof of her resignation to her previous fate at Hailsham.

Cloning as an Appropriate Backdrop for the Theme of Freewill

It is an apt choice for Kazuo to use cloning as a backdrop in pursuing his theme of freewill. Cloning is defined at the basic level as “the process of making a clone, a genetically identical copy” (Definition of Cloning 2001). One of the intriguing questions on cloning in relation to freewill is whether the clones (a.k.a. products of cloning) exhibit a sense of freewill that is apparent in the original human being.  Although Kazuo Ishiguro has scrapped his characters of any sense of freewill in their cloned bones does not mean that they do not have the capacity to be masters of their own fate.

Kazuo Ishiguro believes that every human being-even hypothetical clones-is endowed with freewill even when life’s circumstances restrict it. In the narrative Kathy and her friends blindly accepted their fate instead of hurling ‘stones’ and ‘rocks’ to the world that chocked and scarred them for life.

A Tone of Normalcy an Indicator of Lack of Freewill

Apart from resignation, Kazuo Ishiguro adopts a tone of normalcy through his narrator, Kathy, to show that the main characters opted not to fight life’s battles and as inevitable result ended up as fallen victims instead of victorious survivors.  Throughout the novel, Kathy scans her memory of her past with plaintive ordinariness, regularity and even monotony. In the narrative, there is markedly an absence of strong, passionate emotions- decry, convulsing pain or heartache, seething animosity or rage.  What is maintained in tone and language, page by page, is the unchanging yet unsettling pattern of normalcy and triviality.

An absence or lack of freewill is associated with the ‘normal and regular’ because it assumes a status quo existence, one without a desire to change or improve through sheer determination and willingness to fight. Kathy and the others sought and took refuge in what is ordinary believing it to be a place of refuge only to lose themselves in the end.

In the following passages, Kathy recounts ordinary occurrences in their stay at Hailsham: On the particular afternoon I’m now thinking of, we were standing up on stools and benches, crowding around the high windows. That gave us a clear view of the North Playing Field where about a dozen boys from our year and Senior 3 had gathered to play football. There was bright sunshine, but it must have been raining earlier that day because I can remember how the sun was glinting on the muddy surface of the grass. (p 7)

Usually we just spread ourselves around the chairs and benches—there’d be five of us, six if Jenny B. came along—and had a good gossip. There was a kind of conversation that could only happen when you were hidden away in the pavilion; we might discuss something that was worrying us, or we might end up screaming with laughter, or in a furious row. Mostly, it was a way to unwind for a while with your closest friends. (p 6)

Notice that Kathy recounts a typical habit of girl friends in school-sharing juicy gossips, divulging of secrets and intimate thoughts.  There is no reference to the dark side of cloning-donating organs at a tender age.  I don’t think anyone heard me, because they were all laughing at Laura—the big clown in our group—mimicking one after the other the expressions that appeared on Tommy’s face as he ran, waved, called, tackled.

The other boys were all moving around the field in that deliberately languorous way they have when they’re warming up, but Tommy, in his excitement, seemed already to be going full pelt. I said, louder this time: “He’s going to be so sick if he ruins that shirt.” This time Ruth heard me, but she must have thought I’d meant it as some kind of joke, because she laughed half-heartedly, then made some quip of her own.  (p 9)

(Words like laughing, excitement, languorous, warming all connotes a positive environment.  Everything about this passage screams of ordinariness- a scene seen in any high school, college or university campus or premises.  No uttering of complaints is read in this excerpt, just exclamations of pure, unadulterated innocence and joy.)

Tommy burst into thunderous bellowing, and the boys, now laughing openly, started to run off towards the South Playing Field. Tommy took a few strides after them—it was hard to say whether his instinct was to give angry chase or if he was panicked at being left behind. In any case he soon stopped and stood there, glaring after them, his face scarlet. Then he began to scream and shout, a nonsensical jumble of swear words and insults. (pp 8-9) This is another passage that depicts the normalcy in Kathy’s narration of their childhood days at Hailsham. She recalls the open display of Tommy’s childish tantrum.

Consequences of Unexercised Freewill

Through the story of Kathy and her friends, Kazuo Ishiguro dishes the lessons of a life devoid of freewill. Ishiguro argues that without freewill an individual is left to the whims and caprices of fate, never making his or her own authentic mark in life.  Kathy, Tommy and Ruth never made any attempt to escape from Hailsham, choosing to live by the school’s rules and conditions. They allowed themselves to be treated as machines, with their organs being removed without their consent-young though it may be. It was clearly an exploitation of their innocence, of their trusting nature and of their desire to be loved and accepted.  Kathy, along with her friends, was a victim of her own basic human needs-social and emotional.

Kazuo Ishiguro also argues that the situation an individual finds him/herself in, no matter how seemingly inescapable in its severity and degradation is no excuse for not asserting his/her own freewill.  By not exercising it, man’s self or identity is compromised, making him or her slave to the past and a prisoner in the present.

Nothing good comes out of being weak-spirited and of denying the freewill a full rein of expression.  Kazuo Ishiguro demonstrates this by using the life of the protagonist as a handy and perfect example.

Hailsham, Isolation and Freewill

Hailsham is depicted by Kathy as a place that is cocooned from the outside influences and so untouched by the realities of society and from the frazzles and dazzles of urban life.  The school seeks to isolate for purposes that are unclear in the narrative until the latter part where Kazuo Ishiguro makes a complete reveal, explaining away the horrifying secrets at Hailsham.

Because of the intense isolation experienced by the students including Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, a large portion of their self-identity was defined by and made to conform to the norms-cultural, moral and social-values and lifestyle fostered and cultivated within the strict, confined walls of Hailsham. Decisions and plans were laid out for them in advance consequently loosening the core strands of their freewill.  In the words of one of the school’s guardians:

None of you will go to America, none of you will be film stars. And none of you will be working in supermarkets as I heard some of you planning the other day. Your lives are set out for you. You’ll become adults, then before you’re old, before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll start to donate your vital organs. That’s what each of you was created to do.

Hailsham created them. It conveniently gave them a ‘self, a predetermined past, present and a future.  Kathy, Tommy and Ruth never seemed to have emerged or gotten out from the context Hailsham boxed them in; whatever freewill left in them had been snuffed out by their odd attachment to Hailsham, by their own refusal to let go and just be.

The tragedy of Never Let Me Go rests not so much on the horrors of cloning or the donation of body organs but the abandonment of freewill that could have saved and redeemed them if only. If it were not for the touching friendship and bond of love between Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, the narrative would have been nothing but an excruciating journey into the wasteland of hopelessness and quite desperation.

Works Cited

  1. Ishiguro, Kazuo. “Never Let Me Go.”
  2. Procter, James. “Critical Perspective.” British Council. 2002. 10 March 2008
  3. Procter, James. “Kazuo Ishiguro: Biography.” British Council. 2002. 10 March 2008

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