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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Although she is only thirty-one at the start of the novel, Kathy has almost reached the end of her life. She has lost almost everyone she knew from Hailsham, holding onto them only in her memories. While Kathy’s retrospective narration shows the inevitability of loss, many of her memories reflect a desire slow the relentless march of time towards these losses. The deferral rumor clearly reflects this desire: in hoping for deferrals from donating organs, the students embody the deeply human wish for more time in the face of death. But even the idea of a deferral reinforces the inevitability of death and loss: a deferral is only a brief extension on life, a temporary hold that puts off the future instead of changing it. This same desire for more time ironically motivates the donation program, which depends on the students’ internal organs to extend the lives of people in the outside world.
Kathy copes with the losses in her life by turning to memories of the past. She preserves the memory of Hailsham long after it has closed, just as she preserves her memories of Tommy and Ruth long after their deaths. The novel’s title epitomizes this desire to hold on. The phrase “never let me go” is somewhere between a plea and a demand, reflecting a deeply human need to hold onto, and be held by, loved ones. Kathy’s memories are her way of holding onto everyone and everything she has lost. However, Kathy’s memory is also fragmented and somewhat incomplete. Her narrative is a process of recovery and an attempt to make sense of her memories. She admits to forgetting and misremembering details, showing that memory is just as fragile as it is powerful. Her first-person narration also highlights the absence of other characters’ memories. Ruth and Tommy only appear as reflected through Kathy’s memory, which means that their own thoughts and motivations remain somewhat ambiguous.
Kathy’s narrative is ultimately a testament to the dignity and humanity of the students whom she remembers. The students have less time than their counterparts in the outside world, but their lives are as rich with the hopes, joys, disappointments, and sorrows that define human experience. Kathy’s memories also ironize the efforts of Miss Emily and Madame to demonstrate the students’ humanity through their childhood artwork. Despite their good intentions, both Miss Emily and Madame feel revulsion towards the students whose lives they seek to improve. Kathy, meanwhile, shares the memories of her loved ones with quiet dignity and tenderness. Her narrative speaks for itself, showing the depths of her humanity in ways that Madame and Miss Emily are not capable of doing.