Caregiving and humanness: a view on the novel Never Let Me Go

‘It is in the nature of beginning” — she claims — “that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before. This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings … The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.’ (Arendt, 1958: 177–8)

‘Never let me go’, a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005), makes us experience a world of closure, of impossibility, predictability and silence, where each birth cannot mean a new beginning, being instead a moment of repetition, mimicry, fabrication. It is a novel set up in a world where the ideal of a perfect and long-lasting human being does not work any longer as a constant guiding light for all human actions, within the gap between the ideal itself and reality.  This gap has already been overridden and disrespected, making us, the readers, understand what this violation of boundaries means for humanity and science.

The love story between Kathy H. and Tommy D. draws us into the plot as we sense from the beginning that something odd looms ahead outside the boarding school Hailsham, located in the English countryside, the place where these characters belong to (even after leaving it). Though we are only told on pages 79 and 80 about the closed future of Hailsham students treated as merely medical by-products used to harvest organs for the benefit of the human population, we can actually read right from the start between what we are told and not told, much like what happens at Hailsham according to one of the teachers/guardians, Miss Lucy:

The problem, as I see it, is that you’ve been told and not told. You’ve been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way. But I’m not. If you are going to have decent lives, then you’ve got to know and know properly. (…)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 were brought into this world for a purpose, and your futures, all of them, have been decided. (‘Never Let me go’, 79-80)

This is the field of a new myth – the myth of man’s self-constitution – that tell us the narrative of humanity aiming to immerse all its bios within its ethos, self-making itself as purely rational.

Miss Lucy’s truth and her attempt to reveal to the cloned students living at Hailsham their real nature, from which there is no escape, assumes that, against all odds, these clones are not faceless and nameless, carrying instead unique names, faces and personalities. They are the Other that demands Miss Lucy’s revelation, that explains our painfully hidden wish that their future could be different, that Kathy and Tommy could actually get a deferral and live longer. We even get impatient with the passivity of the main characters who obey the rules at Hailsham, later do exactly what is expected from them at the Cottages, carry on as Carers and finally as donors until they complete their cycle. The boundaries set up at Hailsham, that no student should cross, define the borders between the enclosed world of clones and the free world of the human beings living out there. In spite of all these strict boundaries, the humanity of the clones themselves is constantly sticking out, as if, despite all the efforts to keep them inside the labs, the boarding school, the Cottages, the hospitals, they end up being visibly human.

Miss Lucy’s narrative refuses silence and denial and, although her story is uncomfortable for Kathy, Tom, Ruth and the other students who listen to her, the truth is that they already knew it, their bodies knew it. Miss Lucy’s version of their world restores the supposed order by revealing the truth that no future lies ahead except for the one that is supposed to be.

Kathy, the narrator of ‘Never let me go’, whose eyes guide us into the plot, tells a story that is not only a memoir, but also a narrative from which a self is born, thus contradicting the logical assumption that in the case of clones the subject is already given and nothing can be learned. By telling about her life as a clone she escapes partly from the Cloned Condition of isolation, emptiness, shadows, setting up the relationship that must exist whenever there is a teller and a listener. Kathy, the storyteller, makes us look into the novel’s question: what makes us human? In the territory of illness and caregiving the same question is posed whenever the issue of dehumanized health service is raised and whenever we have to face serious, chronic, and/or fatal illness. Kathy’s narrative reveals what happens when individuals are commodified and their stories are silenced: all the possible futures are cut and hope is de-constructed. It also underlines the unsuccessful attempt to efface the self of those instrumentalized, because their humanity will squeeze out of the borders imposed by science and technology. Only quest narratives accept suffering and use it, assuming that something will be learned through this experience (Frank, 2013: 115). The different types of illness narratives defined by Arthur W. Frank in ‘The Wounded Storyteller’ – restitution, chaos and quest stories — imply different listening devices, thus including the listener in the story framework, which is particularly important if we remember Arthur W. Frank’s warning that “both institutions and individual listeners steer ill people toward certain narratives, and other narratives are simply not heard.” (Frank, 2013:76-7).

‘Never Let me Go’ is more about how we frame our narratives and those of the others, than about cloning; it is more about the way human beings try to outdistance mortality by rendering illness transitory; its focus is more on the chaotic lack of coherence when vulnerability, futility and impotence dominate oneself; it is more about having a voice of one’s own while going on a journey that becomes a quest.

Restitution narratives promise a safe landing, and do not integrate suffering and unexpected failures. This is the narrative that lies at the bottom of the cloning programme, being the clones the instrument that ensures the mortality will be outdistanced. Below the surface of normality, there lies chaos which is visible in Tommy’s tantrums, Miss Lucy’s furious scrawling over a page with a pencil, Madame’s fear of Hailsham students, our own awareness of our powerlessness to keep Kathy, Ruth and Tommy together, to never let them go.

The quest narrative is the story told by Kathy, who tells her own story and integrates the suffering by perceiving illness as a journey, a motif that is present in this novel by the constant reference to the boundaries that one should not cross. Kathy, Tommy and Ruth know the limits to their walks around Hailsham and the Cottages, and in spite of their freedom to run away, they do not break the rules, being thus always moving out and always walking back to the same place. In a world without the family structure, the guardians at Hailsham and the school itself stand for the umbilical cord that provide a beginning for the narrative identity built by each of the main characters, mainly by Kathy. The place where they are and the place where we, readers, might be, are for Kathy the origin that explains who each of us is. Place and time intersect on the roads that the characters are eager to explore, which is all the more ironic and meaningful if we bear in our minds that they are going nowhere.

The Norfolk trip stands as the most important journey, since it is both a looking forward journey, in search for Ruth’s possible, the original human being from whom she was copied, and a backward-looking journey on the shadows of Hailsham. In the end, Kathy’s tape of Judi Bridgewater, Songs of Darkness, is found, not recovered, because, unlike the social image of clones as empty vessels, the things they own can still keep their singularity and the tape found at Norfolk is not the original. The woman Kathy, Tommy and Ruth thought could be Ruth’s possible is not the one they were looking for, so the trip to Norfolk changes the Hailsham illusion of a possible future: “On that journey home, with the darkness setting in over those long empty roads, it felt like the three of us were close again and I didn’t want anything to come along and break that mood” (181). But the mood is broken and their programme is completed, after they go through the experience of being caregivers and then donators. What is striking about the period as caregivers, is the twist that Ishiguro introduces in the plot, because solitude, powerless, the feeling that one is giving the other a life worth living, even if only for some days or weeks, is common to all caregivers. If these clones share the same feelings with other caregivers, then here could lie the answer to the question “What is it that makes us human?”

The replica of clones that this novel confronts us with is already here, not in the labs, not in the actual cloning process, but in the impersonal, science-based doctor-patient relations, as well as in the demands imposed on carers as if they were depersonified. The bridges, that narrative skills enable between ‘doctor and patient or nurse and patient, are echoed and recapitulated in collegial relations between doctor and nurse, and in the even wider reflective communitas between patients in their neighbourhoods and the health professionals who serve them.’(Charon, 2006: 229). Therefore, there is a web of relations that improve with the focus on the individual and the singular, instead of focusing on the statistics and the universal.

Ishiguro’s story warns us against the loss of individuality and singularity in a fabricated world, which resonates significantly in the territory of caregiving. The web of stories, which this novel makes part of, should be preserved, so that radical hope can be offered to those who suffer and to those who care.

Susana Teixeira Magalhães



ARENDT, Hannah. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

HABERMAS, J. 2003. The Future of Human Nature, W. Rehg, M. Pensky, and H. Beister (trans.). Cambridge: Polity.

CHARON, R. 2006. Narrative Medicine: Honouring the stories of illness. Oxoford: Oxford University Press.

FRANK, A. 2013. The Wounded Storyteller. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press

ISHIGURO, K. 2005. Never Let Me Go. London: Faber and Faber.

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