Lives That Matter in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

I taught Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) a few days after the death of Freddie Gray. It was the final text in “The British Novel,” a 200-level course in which my students surveyed novels from the eighteenth century to the present. At the beginning of the semester, I had asked my students to pay particular attention to issues of place, national identity, and difference. This framework prepared us to reflect on the power of fiction to challenge cultural impassiveness in our discussions of Never Let Me Go.

We began our conversation by briefly discussing the main place in Never Let Me Go: Hailsham, the boarding school attended by Kathy, the novel’s narrator. Our conversation quickly turned, however, to a revelation that occurs about halfway through the text. Kathy and her fellow students are clones, being prepared by their teachers to “donate” their organs to “normals,” a process that will eventually lead to their deaths (81, 96). Several of my students said they had suspected something was “different,” in their words, about Kathy and her peers. In particular, they noted and were disturbed by the emotional placidity of these characters, who remain calm even as they discuss their deaths. One student admitted feeling relieved when she discovered that these characters are “not really human.”

I asked my students to confront the assumption that the lives of Kathy and her friends are worth less than so-called “normal” human lives through a series of questions, including:

  • What does the novel suggest are the qualities of being human? Are there passages where other characters imagine the clones as “fully human” or where the reader is encouraged to imagine them as such?
  • Why does the narrative delay our apprehension of the knowledge that Kathy and her friends are clones? What are the effects of this delay on us as readers?
  • What does the novel tell us about nature versus nurture? What is the significance of the fact that most of the novel takes place in a school? What role might education play in numbing the emotions of Kathy and her peers?

We next looked at a passage in which a Hailsham teacher explains calmly to her students that upon graduation, they will act as organ donors until they die. This information strikes Kathy, but she confesses it is not truly shocking because it is something she has already been “told and not told” (81).

I asked my students, “What are we told and not told?” After a pause, one answered, “We are told and not told that in this place, all lives are not worth the same.”

This comment created space for my class to discuss the deaths of Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and countless others. It allowed us to consider how higher education is often a place where rationality is prized over emotional richness, what is lost when that occurs, and what would need to happen for higher education to be different. And it gave us the opportunity to consider how, like Kathy and her friends—who, their teachers suggest, may be able to demonstrate their humanness through creative expression—we too might become more human through acts of thinking and feeling about the others we discover in works of fiction.

 

Rebecah Pulsifer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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