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In Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro proposes what initially seems to be a simple idea: human characteristics extend to artificial human lives, lives created in a laboratory, rather than to “naturally born” humans alone. However, the work hints at a far more complex theme. By exploring the actions, thoughts, and dreams of the clones, Ishiguro draws attention to the value of certain experiences and qualities inherent to human life, including the heroic need to maintain hope. The students at Hailsham know that their futures are not only predetermined but bleak; they will grow up, become carers, and then donate organs until they die. Still, they experience a wealth of emotions, including love, resentment, sadness, and joy, each of which “normal” humans are likely to take for granted.
The novel’s major conflicts lie in the internal struggles of its primary characters—Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth—as they try to persevere and find hope and love. They are conflicted because their humanity drives them to dream about the future, sustaining hope, although the harsh reality they become aware of as children means their dreams will never come true. Ultimately, their conflicts with each other and within themselves motivate them to explore the gamut of human emotions and experiences, a stab at a hopeful future.
In the novel’s inciting incident, while at Hailsham, Kathy finds and listens to an audiotape containing the song “Never Let Me Go.” In Kathy’s interpretation, the song reflects a mother’s hopes that she will not lose her baby. Kathy experiences feelings of longing for a possible future as she listens to the song, swaying with a pillow as if she were cradling a baby in her arms. Madame watches Kathy and cries, a reminder that Kathy will never have this future. Again, Ishiguro emphasizes the desire to maintain hope for the future, even if there is absolutely no chance for that future to become manifest.
Through Kathy’s memories, the novel’s rising action explores the inner conflicts of each of the major characters, revealing that they feel torn between resigning themselves to their fates and accepting them, or standing against them. Tommy’s temper tantrums reveal a sensitive nature that struggles to cope with the clones’ pre-determined fate. He and Kathy forge a bond over their desire to know the truth about why Madame collects the students’ art for her gallery, and their awareness leads them to resist. Ruth, on the other hand, prefers to “fit in” by denying the truth, creating fantasies rather than facing reality. When the clones transition out of Hailsham and into the Cottages, Ruth fantasizes about working in an office after seeing a magazine advertisement showing an office floor plan. She maintains hope, even if, like the fictional floor plan, her dream of working and having a career will never come true.
At the Cottages, the clones explore intimacy, love, and complex relationships. Kathy secretly falls in love with Tommy, and Tommy struggles with his relationship to Ruth. In their actions, each of the characters demonstrates a heroic refusal to give in to pessimism or to deny themselves a chance to experience human life, including all of the conflicts and struggles that come with it. It is almost as if an awareness of mortality inspires them to embrace life.
At the novel’s climax, Ishiguro suggests that certain qualities of the clones, despite the inevitability of their futures, are superior to those of average human beings. They are not only more moral, but more heroic. When Kathy and Tommy go to Madame’s house to request a deferral to their donations, Miss Emily, the former Hailsham head teacher, tells them there are no deferrals. Conditions are simply what they are. She also reveals that she was repulsed by the students at Hailsham. The contrast between the clones and humans becomes clear. Kathy, Tommy, and even Ruth are working to resist a tragic future, and they have never expressed disgust toward the guardians at Hailsham or any other humans they have met.
In the novel’s falling action, Kathy and Tommy come to terms with the fact that their love has no future. Their inner struggle, a classically tragic effort to determine whether to act upon hope or to resign to fate, reaches its conclusion. They accept fate, yet they experience profound love and a glimpse of what a future together might look like. Tommy’s despair forces him to scream into the air, while Kathy seems emotionally detached. They express emotions and display behavior that any human faced with the imminent loss of a loved one would.
As the novel moves to its resolution and the conflicts come to an end, Tommy and Kathy are at peace and living out the remainder of their lives waiting to “complete.” After Tommy’s death, Kathy grieves him with a trip to Norfolk, a symbolic venture to the “lost corner” where Hailsham students think one goes to find lost things. Nostalgia and sorrow, another glimpse into her humanity, drive Kathy to Norfolk as she reconciles herself to becoming a donor herself. The anguish and conflicts of the characters, as they have journeyed from hopeful resistance to acceptance of the inevitable, have driven them to live complete and satisfying lives.