“I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham we had to have some form of medical almost every week.”
Here, it seems apparent from "I don't know how it was where you were" that Kathy's story is addressed to other clones––a reading that is reinforced by similar comments later in the text. This interpretation helps to explain Never Let Me Go's polarizing ending. Although readers might object to Kathy and Tommy's docile acceptance of their fate, Ishiguro implies that only someone who has shared Kathy's experience as a clone can understand her choices.
“Then there were rumours almost every day of pranks that had been played on him. ... I thought sooner or later someone would start saying it had gone too far, but it just kept on, and no one said anything.”
Kathy's account of Tommy's youthful trials foreshadows one of the novel's major themes. Ishiguro does not suggest that people are immoral; rather, he portrays a world in which individuals always assume that someone else will take a stand for morality––and then no one does. It may seem crass to compare Tommy's bullying to mass slaughter, but this is part of the point––to Kathy and her peers, forced organ donations have become so commonplace that they are no more upsetting than a disturbance in the schoolyard.
“Didn’t we all dream from time to time about one guardian or other bending the rules and doing something special for us? A spontaneous hug, a secret letter, a gift?”
This passage serves several functions. On the most basic level, it demonstrates that the clones are fundamentally human and desire elements of the human experience (like having parents)––even those elements to which they have never been exposed. It also shows the extent to which the strict rules at Hailsham discourage human intimacy; any special relationship with a guardian is strictly forbidden and must be conducted in secret. At another point in the novel, Kathy explains that students at Hailsham do not hug each other much. In Never Let Me Go, human intimacy is the only way the clones rebel against the system. By introducing human intimacy as rebellion early in the book, Ishiguro sets the stage for Kathy and Tommy's romance later in the novel.
“If you’re to live decent lives, you have to know who you are and what lies ahead of you, every one of you.”
In some ways, Never Let Me Go revolves around the question of how to live a 'decent life' in the face of impending death. Miss Lucy, arguably the most heroic character in the novel, suggests that it is better to face death with full awareness of what's coming, rather than trying to ignore it. Kathy's approach is slightly less bold; after eleven years as a carer, she knows exactly "what lies ahead," but she tries to focus instead on her memories and her present life. It is left to interpretation whether this pragmatic approach is better or worse than Miss Lucy's gloomy outlook.
“We all know it. We’re modelled from trash. Junkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps. Convicts, maybe, just so long as they aren’t psychos. That’s what we come from. We all know it, so why don’t we say it?”
Ishiguro uses the clone's origins as an opportunity to explore questions of self-knowledge and free will. The clones become fixated on finding their 'originals' because they believe that it will offer them insight into their personalities and their futures. However, they are conflicted about whether they actually want to know their origins because as Ruth says, "clone models" are often somehow undesirable. Ruth and Tommy ruminate frequently about whether finding one's original is actually worthwhile, raising questions of whether a person's fate is determined by their birth or by their choices.
“Something in me just gave up. A voice went: ‘All right, let him think the absolute worst. Let him think it, let him think it.’ And I suppose I looked at him with resignation, with a face that said, ‘Yes, it’s true, what else did you expect?’”
This passage typifies Ishiguro's exploration of agency and passivity. Kathy's decisions to be passive are never characterized as voluntary; she does not give up, but rather "something in [her]" gives up. Her deep psychological resignation here is significant, because similar emotions lead her to accept her fate as a donor. This becomes a kind of chicken-and-egg problem: Ishiguro never clarifies whether this sense of resignation causes her to surrender to fate, or whether her seemingly inevitable future as a donor is what inspires her pervasive sense of futility.
“The fact was, I suppose, there were powerful tides tugging us apart by then, and it only needed something like that to finish the task. If we’d understood that back then––who knows?––maybe we’d have kept a tighter hold of one another.”
Here, Kathy looks back on her final months at the Cottages with nostalgia and resignation. Again, she denies her own role in making things turn out as they did, explaining, "The fact was ... there were powerful tides tugging us apart." Kathy sees herself as completely powerless to change her future or her present life, opting instead for non-actions like leaving the Cottages, that do not actually address her problems.
"Why would he know? ... How could he possibly know what Chrissie would have felt? What she would have wanted? It wasn't him on that table, trying to cling onto life. How would he know?"
Ruth's comments may be poignant, but they also problematize some of the novel's fundamental premises. Much of the novel's appeal and tragic effect is based on empathy, the assumption that Ishiguro can make readers feel what the characters feel. Here, Ruth calls attention to the flawed logic of empathy; no one can ever understand what another individual goes through. This concept reminds readers to think about the story analytically, as an abstraction; it also invites a more sympathetic reading of Ruth, whose behavior may have been motivated by emotions to which readers are not privy.
“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?”
Kathy asks these questions about Hailsham, but they could easily be applied to the world outside the novel as well. Throughout the novel, Ishiguro explores the question of whether it is worthwhile to live a decent life if one is going to die no matter what. Madame, Miss Emily, and the other humane-treatment advocates believe that "books and discussions" are worthwhile even if a person is condemned to live a short life. Kathy, who must actually live the consequences of this mentality, grapples with this question throughout the novel.
“I can see ... that it might look as though you are simply pawns in a game. It can certainly be looked at like that. But think of it. You were lucky pawns. There was a certain climate and now it’s gone. You have to accept that sometimes that’s how things happen in this world.”
Ishiguro carefully builds up the plot's poignancy so that readers will be frustrated when Kathy and Tommy do nothing to try to change their fates––there is no escape, no rebellion. However, Miss Emily's explanation reminds readers that Kathy and Tommy's mentality is familiar; platitudes like "You have to accept that sometimes that's how things happen" are used in real-life situations as well.
Never Let Me Go Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Never Let Me Go is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.