What is it that makes us who we are – that which is inside us, or that which we make? Our perception of ourselves, or how others perceive us? In his novel Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro shows us a bleak alternate future in which humans mercilessly breed clones to provide organs, thereby eliminating concerns over cancer and other such illnesses. The science is never fully explained, but it is clear that the clones are really no different from the humans they come from, except for their origin and ultimate purpose (determined, of course, by humans). Ishiguro demonstrates the humanity of the clones through the narrator, Kathy, her friends Tommy and Ruth, and the story of how they grew up at Hailsham School, essentially a humane care center in which the clone children can learn and develop. In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro explores human nature through the eyes of characters who are not human, but who make us question our humanity all the same.
The students at Hailsham are taught that creativity is the most important trait they can develop – art, and the artistic products they produce, drive the social world of Hailsham School. Kathy tells the reader about the Sales and the Exchanges, explaining how art fuels the student economy, and it becomes clear that social standing is determined by artistic skill and being selected for Madame’s “Gallery.” Madame is a mysterious woman who visits Hailsham several times a year to collect the best art from the children, and her Gallery later becomes the center of a conspiracy; a false rumor started that it was used to determine which clones could be given more time to donate in order to spend extra years with loved ones. In this way, art is equated with the soul, and therefore with humanity itself. The children believe that the purpose of the Gallery is to show who they are – they do not realize that it’s meant to show that they are at all.
When the adult Kathy and Tommy, now in love, find Madame and their former headmistress Miss Emily in hopes of getting a donation deferral, Kathy mentions a moment she had previously described to the reader, in which Madame caught her dancing to “Never Let Me Go,” a sad ballad, pretending to clutch a baby to her chest: “You were… upset that day. You were watching me, and when I realised, and I opened my eyes, you were watching me and I think you were crying… Why was that?” (p. 270-271). Madame explains how she interpreted the incident: “When I came in… I saw you, by yourself, a little girl, dancing… I saw a new world coming rapidly… a harsh, cruel world. And I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go” (p. 271-272). In this moment, where Madame saw Kathy dance, and lovingly clutch something to her heart, she finally saw the clone as something more than merely a creature – Kathy became more human, a “little girl.” Kathy uses her body, what Madame thought was her only thing of value, to create art and show emotion. Madame sees the awful truth in the words “never let me go,” the truth that Kathy, and all the other clones she is in school with, will be forced to let everything go; their relationships, their freedom, and their organs, therefore their bodies and very lives, lives which have meaning and complexity just as human lives do. “We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all” (p. 261). Kathy and Tommy are shocked to discover that anyone could think they didn’t have souls, especially given the love they feel and the art they have produced for years. With this revelation, the hope starts to fade away and misunderstanding takes its place.
Throughout the novel, we see clones interacting just as humans do – they form friendships and rivalries, develop romantic feelings and jealousies, and they go in search of their human counterparts. They create beautiful art and seek to better themselves through knowledge and experience. There is nothing to separate them from humans, and yet Miss Emily confesses that all humans, including herself, are afraid of the clones, that every day she had to fight off her revulsion of them. Madame, though she endeavored to prove the humanity of the clones, didn’t really feel it until she saw Kathy dance. We can ask “what makes a human?” but that question has a dark answer in Never Let Me Go, because ultimately the only thing that separates the humans from the clones is the human sense of self-preservation — while the clones never fight back against their fate except to plea for a deferral, the humans separate themselves from clones and subject them to terrible living conditions, all in an apparent attempt to keep a sense of human superiority. So while we may want to think that what makes the human is something good, like art and emotion, the message of Never Let Me Go is even more bleak than the world it presents – that what makes the human is the willingness to keep others down to continue the status quo.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go. New York: Knopf, 2005. Print.