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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The open-plan office appears three times in the novel, and symbolizes the students’ gradually diminishing sense of possibility for the future. Ruth and Kathy first see the office in a magazine, where it inspires what Ruth refers to as her “dream future.” At this point, none of the students have begun donating organs. They are in a transitional period between childhood and adulthood, and still able to hold onto the dream of an alternate future. The open-plan office reappears in Norfolk, where the students search for Ruth’s “possible.” Here, the office signals the closing off of possibility. The woman in the office turns out to not be Ruth’s possible, solidifying the impossibility of Ruth’s dream future. The office itself has floor-to-ceiling glass windows, which emphasize the students’ relation to the “dream future” that it represents: they can observe it from the outside, but cannot actually participating in it.
The open-plan office reappears on a billboard when Tommy, Ruth, and Kathy are returning from their visit to the boat in Norfolk. At this point, the office has a far more sobering effect. It is a reminder of past dreams at a moment when the future for all three has already been set in motion. Yet the open-plan office also remains a symbol of hope, as Ruth hands Madame’s address to Kathy and Tommy underneath the billboard. Ruth knows that her life is almost over, but Madame’s address introduces the possibility that at least Tommy and Kathy might extend their time together.
As a child at Hailsham, Kathy acquires a cassette tape of the Judy Bridgewater album Songs after Dark at one of the Sales. Her favorite track on the album, “Never Let Me Go,” gives the novel its title. The song symbolizes both the depths of human love and the fear of losing those whom one loves. This becomes clear in the story that Kathy invents to explain the song’s lyrics. Kathy imagines that the song is about a woman afraid of losing her baby. Holding tightly to the child, she sings a song that expresses her happiness as well as her fear of loss. This image of holding on recurs several times in the novel, most notably when Kathy and Tommy hold one another in the field after learning that deferrals do not exist. When the tape itself disappears, Kathy has her first experience of loss that presages the losses she will later experience on a much larger and more human scale.
The crumbling boat is a symbol of mortality, highlighting the passage of time and the inevitability of loss that comes with it. Kathy’s visit to the boat with Ruth and Tommy echoes their first trip to Norfolk, but with noticeable differences. Both Chrissie and Rodney are absent, and their conversation reveals that Chrissie has already completed. Ruth and Tommy are both donors at this point, and Ruth exhibits signs of physical weakness. The boat itself recalls a bleached skeleton, and is noticeably surrounded by dead tree trunks. The scene before them reminds both Tommy and Ruth of Hailsham, but a Hailsham transformed with the passage of time. Tommy speculates that Hailsham looks like the marsh now that it has closed, while Ruth shares her dream of a Hailsham surrounded by floodwaters. Although their visit is tinged with sadness and a sense of loss, the students also find the boat beautiful. In this way, the boat echoes their memories of Hailsham. They cannot revisit Hailsham or their childhood there together. The ghostly boat in the marsh is as close to recovering this past as they can come.