An intense exploration of the human condition
With Never Let Me Go, the Japanese-born English writer Kazuo Ishiguro follows the tradition of many dystopian novels such as Aldous Huxley's A Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984. It is set between the 1970s and 1990s in a world where, while closely resembling contemporary English society during that period, science has developed astonishing new technologies to cure diseases and prolong lives, based, largely around human clones, which are created only as organ donors. On the surface it tells the emotional story of the lives of three clones: Kathy, Ruth and Tommy. It is narrated bythe intelligent and gentle 31 year old Kathy H. She takes us back into her memories about life at Hailsham, a boarding school where she grew up with her two main friends: the bossy, but ultimately compassionate Ruth, and the emotional but unimaginative, insecure Tommy. Just like “normal” humans, they fall into the classic love triangle, but more importantly, they start on a quest looking for a meaning to their short and mechanical lives and a way to run away from their fate. In fact, Never Let Me Go is a clever novel, in which Kazio Ishiguro uses a very detailed description of the short lives of clones to present an intensified view of human life and its difficulties, where our complex social and personal relationships, and above all our mortality, fear of death and ability to love, are magnified through the shortness of time allotted to the clones. Although the author's language is simple and the plot uncomplicated, the novel turns out to be an intense exploration of the human condition, of the complex set of characteristic features defining us as human beings and distinguishing us from other forms of natural or artificial life. These features include such characteristics as our limited life span, our ability to feel emotions, our personal thoughts, and social attitudes. Above all, our greatest human ability is to suffer and feel pain. The novel presents various themes, including the significance of human life, the ethics behind cloning and the political, social and moral consequences of modernization and technology as well as the ancient debate about the role of art. Among many other ideas, it also challenges our society's claim to be empathetic and sympathetic, All of the themes are presented in the novel exactly through the horrific fictional story of the clones.
One of the main things which makes us human is our mortality and fear of death. Just like normal humans, the clones are predestined to die, creating a feeling that their lives seem preprogrammed: they move from one stage, (childhood at various institutes named boarding schools ) to another, (the beginning of adulthood at the Cottages,) somewhat only slightly aware of the horrors, sufferings and atrocities of what is in store for them. As Shameen Black writes:
The lives of the genetically- engineered students seem fundamentally automatic and mechanized: they move through the stages of their lives with the regularity of students promoted from grade to grade, seemingly blind the the horrors that shadow their march towards suffering and death.1
Their lives are robot-like and even though they have enough freedom in the cottages, they do not try to escape or rebel. They do not even think of the idea. However, Kathy, Ruth , Tommy and the rest of their class at Hailsham are alerted early to their fate by a well-meaning teacher – Miss Lucy, who is later, for unknown reasons, discharged from the school. She tells them :
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. You’re not like the actors you watch on your videos, you’re not even like me. You were brought into this world for a purpose, and your futures, all of them, have been decided.
Their lives have already been planned. They all have the same fate: to donate their organs and “complete” (i.e die) after their second, third or in the best of cases their fourth “donation”. Through this aspect of their lives does Ishiguro immensely intensify our mortality, as the greatest part of the human condition.
Throughout the novel the use of numerous euphemisms for unpleasant truths; 'completion' for death, 'donation' (which implies a voluntary act) for forcible organ harvesting, emphasizes how societies always avoid facing tendentious issues directly. This is not entirely unlike Orwell's use of key words such as 'truth' and 'love' in his NewSpeak. Nor is it entirely unlike the romanticisation of being bred in bottles on a production line in Huxley's dystopian “Brave New World'. Of course, what this should make us reflect on is the way all societies play around with language.Even the clones adopt the words 'donation' and 'completion' to block out the reality of their lives from their minds. This creates an atmosphere where the clones accept their lives as meaningless. Humanity also uses such euphemisms: One only has to think about how people in the English-speaking society have their ill pets “put to sleep” to see this. Through this widespread use of metaphors to cover-up the truth, the author shows us that even subconsciously we try to screen out these awful realities.
The author manages very successfully to present a society in which some human lives are seen as a worthless and insignificant part of the universe. Exactly this image of worthless lives makes us realize actually how priceless and valuable our lives are. As Kathy, the narrator, says:
Why did we do all of that work in the first place? Why train us, encourage us, make us produce all of that? If we’re just going to give donations anyway, then die, why all those lessons? Why all those books and discussions?
If they are going to “complete”, why are they educated at all, rather than bred like pigs in a factory farm? In fact, this is a question we can ask ourselves, since, however long we live, we are going to die one day. What the author achieves through this parallel between normal children and clones makes us aware of how similar our fates are. We fear what happens after death –is there an afterlife, or simply an end? That is why we have religions, all of which have historically developed some sort of idea of life beyond death. There is, however, a difference. Another aspect of the human condition is the quest for the meaning of life. The clones don't have families. They have first names and initials only. As we read further on in the novel we realize that they have no parents. Further on, when they leave school, they do not get jobs. They can only become carers like Kathy, who helps clones go through the pains of the operations, come to grips with death and lives without hope. In this sense their lives have no meaning. But do ours? Don't our lives often look mechanized and automated as the lives of clones? Why do we live? Does each separate life has its own meaning and purpose,which every human being determines him or herself, or how much meaning is socially determined or, somehow, determined by something beyond both ourselves and the societies we live in, something we call God and the ancient Greeks called Fate? Is the meaning of life only to do something valuable with one's life, something that may be remembered by others and valued by society? Each human being probably finds a meaning to life, but the clones, on the other hand, they do not realize that even their short lives can have a meaning and are not pointless: They love and care for each other. Even only these to expression can bring meaning into one's life. Being human means having family, friends, love, hope, and memories, but also being mortal and having to face that fact. But the human quality that makes the clones undeniably human is their ability to suffer and fear death. The clones suffer not only physically during the 'donations', but also emotionally as they separate from each other. Kathy describes one of here 'patients':
He knew he was close to completing and so that’s what he was doing: getting me to describe things to him, so they’d really sink in, so that maybe during those sleepless nights, with the drugs and the pain and the exhaustion, the line would blur between what were my memories and what were his.
The clones, on the brink of 'completion' are exhausted from pain. As Kathy knows how emotional pain can sometimes be worst than physical pain, tries to free this clone of his emotional pain and that way making him suffer less.
The story of the clones Cathy, Ruth and Tommy is an illustration of the most valuable human qualities: love, friendship and sympathy. Ishiguro's novel explores the never-ending theme of love as a means of saving someone and an indispensable part of the human condition. Kathy and Ruth, two best friends, and Tommy grow up together and develop a complex relationship.Kathy falls for Tommy and stays honest to him, proving that her love for him is true. She never thinks about another man. The eternal theme of love, fidelity and caring for someone has been explored. Through love many clones hope that they will acquire deferrals of their donations. At the Cottages the three, meet another, but older, couple – Crissie and Rodney. The older couple bring up the question of deferrals. They ask Kathy, Ruth and Tommy if the stories that Hailsham student are privileged, if what they had heard was true.
We heard something else, something about Hailsham students. What they were saying was that some Hailsham students in the past, in special circumstances, had managed to get a deferral. That this was something you could do if you were a Hailsham student. You could ask for your donations to be put back by three, even four years. It wasn’t easy, but just sometimes they’d let you do it. So long as you could convince them. So long as you qualified.
At this stage of their lives the clones start to realize their fate but still continue to be completely at peace with it – no attempts to revolt, to escape. Only love,the desire to spend more time with the loved one, triggers an attempt to avoid or postpone their “donations”. Love is their biggest and only hope. As Dostoevsky writes in his famous Crime and Punishment , only love can save the world. Sonya joins Razkolnikov, the murderer, to Siberia to share his punishment with him. She shows that it is better to spend little time together and share a horrible fate, than no time with her loved one and then live in misery and pity for herself for the rest of her life. But both books are immensely tragic as there is never an extension for those who truly love each other. The fate of all people, not only of those who truly love, is to die. There is no way to extend the time we are alloted. After Tommy's second donation and Ruth's completion, Tommy and Kathy acquire a meeting with Madame and Miss Emily. Tommy has hopes that their paintings and drawings reveal their innersouls and that they are truly in love and thus they will receive a deferral. But there their expectations are also obliterated when Miss Emily reveals that “There’s no truth in the rumour” and the truth behind the “Gallery”.They produce works of art, not to show their inner selves, their souls, but to prove that they “had souls at all.”, to show the world that they are human beings and love and suffer. Madame and Miss Emily try to keep evidence of their humanity through the “Gallery” and fought for their equality, but did not succeed. This showing us that the connection between love and our inner selves is yet another irreplaceable part of the human condition.
Love and death are closely interlinked throughout the novel, always working in opposite ways to the same end. Death is an unknown end, and for those who truly love each other life is a never-ending fight. Kazuo Ishiguro uses an intensified, narrowed down picture of human life, to show us reality and the human condition. The novel talks about all themes that are part of the human condition – Friendship, pain, love and death - the problems of humanity, which we do discuss often. The novel explores all these problems through the experiences of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy in their short, misunderstood and sorrowful lives. Through exploring the human condition the author shows us exactly what it is – all difficulties in our lives, but mainly the war between love and death.
- 1Shameem Black, Ishiguro's Inhuman Aesthetics, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009, Baltimore
Never Let me Go
The author himself
Now a motion picture
The novel & the movie
© 2013 Andro Mathewson
g on May 16, 2013: