Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go Summary and Analysis of Chapters 18-20


The narrative shifts closer to the present day. Kathy is proud of her work as a carer––she feels she has the right disposition for it, and she is proud of the fact that she is bold enough to stand up to doctors on behalf of her patients. However, other carers, like Kathy’s Hailsham friend Laura, find the job difficult and draining. One day, Kathy runs into Laura, who tells her some rumors about how Ruth is doing. Apparently, Ruth had a very difficult first donation and has had to change carers multiple times due to personal differences. Laura suggests that Kathy become Ruth’s carer.

There are rumors that Hailsham has closed recently. Kathy is profoundly affected by this news, and realizes that times are changing and she must begin wrapping up the loose ends in her life. She goes to Dover and becomes Ruth’s carer. Although it starts out well initially, the two women have an awkward moment one day when Kathy arrives early and walks in on Ruth coming out of the shower. Kathy interprets Ruth’s fearful facial expression to mean that Ruth does not trust her, and their relationship becomes chilly for a while.

Rumors circulate among the donors about an abandoned boat in the middle of a marsh. Apparently, several carers have taken their donors to see the boat. Ruth hints that she would like to make such a trip, and Kathy suggests that perhaps the real reason for the trip would be to see Tommy, whose recovery center is near the abandoned boat. Kathy is initially reluctant to take Ruth on the trip, but Ruth keeps asking about it and eventually they set a date. Kathy learns that after she left to become a carer, Ruth and Tommy drifted apart, but never formally broke up.

Kathy notices that Tommy’s recovery center is poorly appointed and not nearly as nice as Ruth’s. Nevertheless, he seems to be in good spirits and is very happy to see his old friends. When they go to see the boat, Ruth is frailer and more docile than they remember. She is very bitter about her donations; she speculates that many donors “complete” (or die) after their second donations, although they are supposed to survive the second and third and die on the fourth. Tommy has a better outlook; he believes that he is good at being a donor the way Kathy is good at being a carer.

On the way back, Tommy and Kathy nag Ruth, asking her why she never even tried to become an office worker, as she had once dreamed. Ruth is agitated by this and eventually changes the subject. She earnestly apologizes to Kathy for the way she handled Kathy’s confidences about her sexual urges––in fact, Kathy’s urges were completely normal, but Ruth pretended they were strange to make her friend feel bad. She also apologizes for keeping Kathy and Tommy apart when they were clearly meant to be together.

Ruth wants Tommy and Kathy to apply for deferrals so they can have a few years together, and she has procured Madame’s address to help them do this. Kathy believes the idea is silly and that it is too late, but Tommy seems to like it. Ruth also advises Kathy to become Tommy’s carer, which Kathy is eventually able to do a year later after Ruth dies.

She enjoys caring for Tommy, and they quickly begin a sexual relationship. However, Kathy cannot get past the nagging sadness that they did not have more time together when Tommy was at the peak of health. She learns that Tommy has been continuing with his drawings and still hopes to apply for a deferral. Kathy is dubious that the plan will work but she agrees to try it.


As Never Let Me Go reaches its denouement, Ishiguro’s tone becomes noticeably more elegiac. Kathy begins to put aside the trivial concerns of her childhood and adolescence and focus on the donations looming ahead of her and Tommy. Accordingly, she focuses much more on the near present in these chapters than she does on her memories, and the narrative develops a cohesion and linearity that it lacks in the first two parts, which are highly digressive and discursive.

Kathy’s focus in these chapters shifts rather abruptly from Ruth to Tommy; we see Ruth struggling to survive after her second donation, and then in the following chapter, it is one year later and Kathy is Tommy’s carer. There is little emotional resolution offered to the Ruth plotline; it drops off abruptly almost in media res.

Although Ruth’s fate is discussed later in the novel, Ishiguro withholds this information to narrow the novel’s emotional focus on Ruth and Tommy’s tragedy. To lose Ruth would distract from and complicate the heart-rending scenes after Tommy and Kathy find out they will not be able to defer.

The abandoned boat that the trio visits is an important symbol of their shared past. Like Hailsham, a boat offers a small, isolated place of refuge in the ocean, where people would otherwise be lost to cold, ruthless nature. And like a boat, Hailsham is also subject to forces much larger than itself––just as a boat can easily be wrecked in a storm, so too can Hailsham easily lose funding and close at the turn of public opinion.

Abandoned and decaying, the boat foreshadows the intense grief and loss that will come in the final chapters. Although Hailsham has been repurposed rather than actually abandoned, Tommy admits that since it has closed, he visualizes Hailsham as empty and surrounded by marshlands, not unlike the boat. Importantly, Tommy, Ruth, and Kathy are only able to seriously discuss their role as donors after confronting this symbol of their shared past. This suggests that the past might prevent people from seeing the present clearly, a thematic idea that also lends insight into Kathy’s narrative, which relies heavily on memory.