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Never Let Me Go Summary and Analysis

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Chapters 4-6

Summary

Kathy explains that she looks forward to becoming a donor because the process will give her time to relax and think over the events of her life. With that, the narrative flashes back to her youth at Hailsham.

In Junior 4, the students begin to resent Madame for taking their best artwork away to the Gallery. They would otherwise be able to trade these pieces for other students’ work at Hailsham’s quarterly Exchanges. Eventually, the Guardians agree to reimburse the students with tokens for the art that is taken away. However, the controversy inspires one girl to ask Miss Lucy why the art is taken to the Gallery in the first place. Miss Lucy refuses to explain because she believes the students would not understand if she told them.

There are many confusing moments at Hailsham. Sometimes students misbehave at the Sales (where they are allowed to trade tokens for items from the outside world), and Miss Emily’s lectures after these incidents always bewilder; she frequently becomes emotional and alludes to concepts the students do not understand.

Kathy’s narrative goes further back, to her earliest days at Hailsham. She becomes friends with Ruth around age 7, and they often play games involving pretending. One day, Ruth invites Kathy to join the “secret guard,” a group of girls who pretend to be bodyguards to Miss Geraldine, their favorite guardian. They imagine a plot to kidnap Miss Geraldine and take her into the terrifying woods that surround Hailsham.

Chess is rather popular at Hailsham, and growing up, Ruth often comments on people’s games when she sees them playing. Because of this, Kathy assumes that Ruth is very good at chess and asks to be taught how to play, but it soon becomes clear that Ruth actually knows nothing about the game. Kathy is disgusted and storms away, which leads Ruth to expel her from the secret guard.

Three years later, Kathy notices that Ruth has a flashy new pencil case. When Kathy asks where she got it, Ruth insinuates that it was a present from Miss Geraldine, a forbidden gesture of favoritism. Annoyed by the obvious lie, Kathy suspects that Ruth actually got the pencil case at a Sale. She begins to confront Ruth about it, but when she sees how uncomfortable her friend becomes at having her fib exposed, she backs off and allows Ruth to save face.

Things are awkward between Kathy and Ruth for a while after the botched confrontation. Eventually a mutual friend asks where the pencil case came from; this is uncomfortable for Ruth because she must answer the question consistently, but she also doesn’t want to continue with the lie now that Kathy knows the truth. Kathy intervenes, explaining, “There are some very good reasons why we can’t tell you where it came from” (63); this smooths things over between the two girls.

One day in geography class, Miss Emily characterizes the county of Norfolk as a “lost corner” because it is so rural and remote. Hailsham also has a “lost corner”: this is the students’ nickname for the lost-and-found area on the third floor. It becomes an inside joke that all items lost in England somehow end up in Norfolk.

At a Sale, Kathy buys a cassette tape by a singer from the 1950s named Judy Bridgewater. The music is “cocktail-bar stuff, not the sort of thing any of us at Hailsham liked” (70), but Kathy is especially taken with a song called “Never Let Me Go.” She interprets the song to be about a woman’s love for her baby. One day, Madame stumbles upon Kathy dancing and singing the song to an imaginary baby. Madame becomes very emotional and begins to cry, resulting in an awkward and unsettling moment for Kathy.

Several months later, Kathy loses the cassette and is very upset, but tries not to make a fuss about it in front of the other students. Ruth tries to find the tape, and when that fails, gives Kathy another one. Although the music is nothing like Judy Bridgewater––it is orchestral music for ballroom dancing––Kathy is touched by the gesture, which she recognizes is intended to repay her for the pencil-case incident.

Analysis

At this point in the text, we both know and don’t know about the organ donation system––just like the students of Hailsham. In this section, more information is gradually revealed about the donation process and the political realities that underlie it. Ishiguro suggests that there is another secret beyond the organ donation system––that Hailsham plays a special role in this brave new world. However, he only alludes to this reality briefly, at moments like Miss Emily’s incomprehensible lecture.

The pencil-case incident is a pivotal scene in this section. The case itself does not sound especially remarkable, but as Kathy says, “a gorgeous item like that wouldn’t have gone unnoticed” (56) at Hailsham. This reveals the low quality of the items in the Sales (suggesting that they are cast-offs or charitable donations from “normal”), and alludes to the general sense of economic malaise that pervades Ishiguro’s universe. It is clear that this alternate England suffers from all kinds of material shortages, a situation that both parallels and helps to explain the organ donation system.

This scene also highlights some important developments in both Kathy and Ruth. In the previous scene, Kathy reacts cruelly when Moira tries to talk to her about the “secret guard.” Three years later, Kathy seems to be at a liminal stage in her development; her choice to confront Ruth in the first place indicates a degree of immaturity, but she is considerate enough to allow her friend to save face.

Similarly, Ruth remains aloof in this section but begins to recognize that social relationships involve give-and-take; she fervently searches for a way to repay Kathy after the latter refrains from humiliating her about the pencil case. This contrasts sharply with the way she handled the chess incident several years earlier; rather than being grateful to Kathy for keeping her secret, Ruth expelled her from the secret guard.

The theme of willful ignorance begins to take center stage in this section. The students often choose not to press Miss Lucy for more information about donations because they sense that they are not ready for the whole truth. Similarly, all of the girls in the secret guard recognize that it’s not real, but they willfully suspend disbelief. The stakes are much lower in the latter situation, but it demonstrates that the impulse to willful ignorance is inherent to human nature––it’s not just something that crops up in life-or-death matters like the organ donations.

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