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How does Ishiguro present childhood and its loss in “Never Let Me Go”?

In the dystopian novel “Never Let Me Go” Ishiguro presents the students’ childhoods as having a void, through the loss of family and the domestic sphere, the loss of innocence, the loss of identity and most explicitly the loss of life, growing up to be slaughtered before they are “even middle aged”.

Their loss of family and consequently a loss of love make them look for love and role models elsewhere: during their early days in the confines of Hailsham Kathy behaves like an older sister to Tommy portraying her natural “carer” abilities; “Tommy, your nice shirt”, similarly Tommy confides in Kathy, treating her much like an older sister.

The author also portrays the students greatly admiring the guardians and even portraying them as mother figures in the eyes of the clones, Miss Geraldine, “comforted you” very much like the mother figure that the clones are all missing in their lives. Ruth takes this further in attempt to fill her void by implying that she has special favour of Miss Geraldine, “hint about some little mark of favour Miss Geraldine had shown her”.

This denial of family is not only denied from them in their childhood, but also in the future as “none of” them “could have babies”. Friendship in the outside world is also denied from them as they do not seem to be able to cross the, “boundaries” of Hailsham and are in the “shadows” away from the rest of society.

Overall this loss of family makes the relationships at Hailsham more special and needed, explaining the “loyalty” Kathy showed Ruth eventually becoming “Ruth’s carer”.

 Ishiguro portrays Kathy to also care about rekindling these relationships in latter life when she becomes a “carer”, as she wanted to care for “people from Hailsham”.

As Hailsham is the clones only source of relationships, they seek to find a sense of belonging making the, “Secret Guard” so special to them. The members are all complicit and obedient to Ruth to give them all a sense of belonging and an emotional coping method as in their own imagination they are doing something to combat their fate. This need to be wanted and part of a group makes the punishment of being “expelled” from the group all the more hurtful.

Ishiguro, himself in his interview with the Guardian 2005, says that the novel is about the “endurance of human relationships” and these relationships, made more important by the loss of the clones’ domestic spheres, are overtime destroyed both metaphorically and literally.

Metaphorically, through the closure of Hailsham the relationships between the students disappears; Ishiguro uses the metaphor of the balloons to portray this, “no real sense in which those balloons belonged”.

Physically Kathy also loses her relationships through the students “completing”, “a single balloon would sail up into the cloudy sky”, the metaphor symbolising the death of her friends.

This collective identity enforced upon the students is much like a traditional twentieth century boarding school, “We loved our sports pavilion” as well as Hailsham being a secure environment. Other similarities between Hailsham and a traditional twentieth century boarding school is that the students speak fondly of it, Ishiguro portrays this through Kathy looking back at her childhood with a sense of nostalgia, looking subconsciously for Hailsham, “I’ve found it!”; however as an unreliable narrator she does not recognise the negatives of Hailsham, making excuses for its manipulation as her childhood gives her comfort. The prevalence of “bulling”, as represented by Tommy’s ordeal, is also a similarity between Hailsham and the traditional boarding school stereotype. This traditional boarding school inspiration may have come from when Ishiguro, read Enid Blyton to his daughter - interview with the Guardian 2005.

However in some aspects, Hailsham contradicts the traditional boarding school novel as not only do the students not study science and is therefore portrayed as an abnormal school in itself, but in many traditional boarding school novels there is always great emphasis on going home for the holidays or receiving gifts from home. However the loss of the domestic sphere takes away this sense of family belonging and Ruth tries to replace this boarding school vision of receiving gifts from home by, “claiming the pencil case was a gift from Miss Geraldine”. There are also no mischievous pranks or any reference to breaking the rules only passive conformity.

The students also lose their independence throughout their childhood; they are dependent on Hailsham for their happiness as illustrated by Ishiguro through Laura outside Hailsham when Kathy was looking for the “flash of the old Laura” but “none of that came”, contrasting Laura’s character to show how different Hailsham is to outside society; they are also dependent on Hailsham for their possessions, “only means” “of building up a collection of personal possessions”. As well as this they are dependent on Hailsham for security as its manipulation makes them “fearful of the world” outside Hailsham, as represented by Ishiguro through the metaphor of the woods which are physically outside Hailsham, the “dark fringe of trees”  and have stories of a boy with his “hands and feet cut off” representing the donations process.

However Ishiguro says that this shelter, which could arguably be making the clones dependent and conform to their fate, provided by Hailsham is a “physical manifestation of what we have to do to all children” - interview with the Guardian 2005- in order for them to have a happy childhood showing the humanity and kindness of Madame and Miss Emily.

The passive conformity portrayed by the author in the clones could also be a metaphor of our own passivity towards our own lives; generally as human beings we accept how things are in our lives, fit in with the rest of society and stick to predictable patterns, afraid of change. Ishiguro’s use of Kathy as an unreliable narrator could be raising questions of humanity’s approach to life.

On the other hand others would argue that this is not the case and the clones’ acceptance of their death is due to their manipulation from an early age, for example the students are introduced to the idea of giving through the “exchanges” to familiarise them with giving and the eventual donation of their vital organs before “completing”.

Yet others would argue that Ishiguro is trying to portray the human race facing mortality with the clones being a metaphor of us as a society: like them we too will also die and Ishiguro may be suggesting that we too are in denial and that we distract ourselves from this fact throughout our lives through work and other activities, much like the continual expectation to be “creative” distracting the students from their eventual fate. Kathy accepts that “We all complete” and Ishiguro may be suggesting that we should all accept our own deaths as much as them.

However as an unreliable narrator Kathy says “it feels just about right to be finishing” not only accepting death but embracing it, possibly suggesting her manipulation and her mentality of feeling a duty to donate. Or Ishiguro could be showing that her life alone “driving up and down the country” is miserable and that it is better to die than live a life with no relationships at all.

The clones will die young, “before you’re even middle aged” showing an obvious loss of life however this idea of loss of life could be extended as they cannot live on after their own death: they cannot live on through their offspring due to the problem of them, “not being able to have babies”; they cannot live on through the memories of others as they lived in a contained society, within the “boundaries” of Hailsham and there is no mention of religion taking away the comfort that many people take today in regarding death.

The students know about their inevitable death from an early age, being taught about the donations, “even as early as six or seven”. The brutality of inflicting this knowledge makes them lose their innocence, consequently using denial, “I sensed how beyond that line there was something harder and darker and I didn’t want that”; everyday childhood games and imagination as a coping method.

They use their imagination to replace what they have not got and the use of the “Secret Guard” gives them a sense of belonging, while latter in their childhood the students use humour as emotional protection, “unzipping” “became a running joke”.

Ishiguro may also use the students’ obsession with finding their “possibles” to illustrate them trying to replace their loss of identity; the fact that they never find anybody’s real “possible” adds to that loss. Their identity is lost as they are regarded as the other in society, “you’re not even like me” and through the continual association with inferior pests, as portrayed by Ishiguro through the simile, “like spiders”.

 This unfairness between the donors who have lost so much compared with the receivers exempt from disease in society is typical of a dystopian novel, where the scientific advances are accompanied by the moral rights and wrongs being distorted by the rest of society. Ishiguro follows the literacy tradition by blending reality, with real places mentioned like, “Cromer” and “Dover”, and imagination, making the novel seem more realistic. Through doing this Ishiguro could be raising questions about our own scientific advances and cloning.

Today IVF along with therapeutic cloning research is permitted in the United Kingdom and there is a debate over whether the stem cells and embryos used are potential human life, through the detailed account of the clones in “Never Let Me Go” we get an insight into their humanity, the author raising the issue of the definition of humanity. Reproductive cloning however is illegal in the United Kingdom and it is presented with huge resistance; however some people believe that it would be beneficial. Ishiguro could be raising the question of whether we will “ask the sensible questions” by doing so, portraying a warning of what might happen if we do not. This is emphasised even more as the Britain in “Never Let Me Go” is recognisable to our society today.

Overall Ishiguro presents the loss of family and the domestic sphere, the loss of innocence, the loss of identity and the loss of life through the eyes of an unreliable narrator showing the unjust society of the dystopia through one of the oppressed, demonstrating the clones’ humanity and making us sympathetic as a reader.


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