Quiet Success: Revolution in Never Let Me Go

Terri Coleman

Kazuo Ishiguro sets his subdued 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go, in a largely realistic version of 1990s England. There is, of course, one important difference between Ishiguro’s 1990s England and ours: in the novel, medical science has made it possible to cure chronic diseases like cancer through advanced organ transplantation. To meet the need for organs, society has developed an organ supply pool: clones who are obliged to give up their own body parts in a misleadingly titled system of “donation.” These clones are created and raised by the state, isolated from normal people. Upon reaching adulthood, they work in the donation system as carers, nursing other clones through an eventually fatal cycle of transplantation and recovery until they are called upon to become donors themselves.

In many ways, Never Let Me Go aligns with other staples of dystopian fiction. Like Huxley’s Brave New World, it explores the possibilities and consequences of engineering human beings with specific traits and behaviors in mind. As in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, restrictions on sex and reproduction are attached to institutional power. State control of protagonists’ lives and language—specifically in the form of euphemistic neologisms—in Never Let Me Go recall Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But unlike those other dystopian novels, Ishiguro’s is not a story of active resistance. Readers of dystopian fiction come to the table with the expectation that, even if they are unsuccessful, at least one character will work to undermine whatever sinister injustice is at the core of the dystopian society. But in Never Let Me Go, neither the clones, who seem to have enough freedom to escape should they so desire, nor the non-cloned people who purport to be their advocates, openly question the donation system. Instead, the victims of the dystopian society readily submit to donation. They go like sheep to the slaughter.

Some readers find the lack of open rebellion in Never Let Me Go vexatious. A review from Christian Century sums up the responses of many casual readers of the book: “It’s frustrating for the reader that [the clones] make no effort to challenge the society or their role in it” (23). While the responses of non-scholarly readers tend to be, like the above quoted review, rooted in the visceral and emotional, scholarly criticisms of Never Let Me Go are often rooted in responses to narrative techniques utilized in the book. As Martin Puchner explains, her “lack of outrage more than anything else makes one wonder whether [protagonist Kathy H.] is not somehow deficient” (36).

But does Kathy H. actually “make no effort to challenge the society” (Christian Century 23)? Does she really lack outrage (Puchner 36)? Is her failure to live up to the expectations of readers by displaying an active, open form of resistance really a failure to resist? Is it possible that Kathy H.’s narrative—the text that relates what seems to be her resignation to the fate of her caste—can be viewed, in and of itself, as an act of defiance and resistance aimed at the society which has defined her kind as subhuman beings whose bodies can be used as resources for more worthy, wholly human people? It is my supposition that Kathy H.’s narrative can be viewed as an act of resistance—and perhaps the most effective form of resistance inside the confines of her diegetic world.

Open Secrets in Straightforward Narration

Kathy H. opens her narrative with an introduction of herself and her work. Here, as in the rest of the novel, she uses the euphemistic jargon of the society in which she lives: she calls herself a “carer” and explains that her job is to help people as they go through their “donations” (3). On the surface, Kathy H.’s use of euphemistic neologisms seems to support the way these terms are used by the society as a whole. By redefining positively connoted words like “caring” and “donation”—and ensuring that those positively connoted words are the only ones used to describe what is, in actuality, a system of organ banditry—the society is able to stifle any dissent or objection to its system before it can foment. The euphemistic language acts as a type of “semantic programming” (Toker and Chertoff 164) that make other, more visible shows of force unnecessary for enforcing the unjust system. After all, who could be against “caring”? But a closer reading of Kathy H.’s use of the terms shows that she does something slightly different with them.

Kathy H.’s narrative mirrors what Leona Toker and Daniel Chertoff argue is “the main educational technique through which the [clones] are brought to accept their fate.” This technique “consists of causing awareness of it to grow up on them gradually” (167). In application, this educational technique involves divulging important information in such a way that the receivers of the information can understand it, but not process it. As Kathy H. explains, “[our guardians] had… timed very carefully and deliberately everything they told us, so that we were always just too young to understand properly the latest piece of information. But of course we’d take it in at some level, so that before long all this stuff was there in our heads without us ever having examined it properly” (Ishiguro 82). Using a similar technique, Kathy H., in her introduction, offers her readers information that they cannot fully understand until later. When she explains that she has been a “carer” for eleven years and that she will go on in that position until the end of the year, when she will stop (3), the reader does not yet know what this means; when Kathy H. finishes her work as a carer—a nurse for patients whose organs have been harvested for use in medical treatment for a privileged class—she will become a donor and her own organs will be harvested. By the second sentence of her narrative, Kathy H. has told her audience that in eight months she will be forced to move into a role that will kill her.

Kathy’s relation of her own impending doom comes in the form of what Anne-Lise François calls an “open secret.” The term “refers to nonemphatic revelation—revelation without insistence and without rhetorical underscoring. “Narrators like Kathy H. “present the difference they make as an open secret, a gift that does not demand response but is there for the having, as readily taken up as it is set aside” (xvi). In the novel, the open secret works as a vehicle for presenting information that, if shared on the surface, would fail to effectively upset the power structures in the diegetic confines of the story. In a world where everyone knows about the donation system, an open discussion of that system isn’t revolutionary; it’s mundane. Sharing information in the form of an open secret allows Kathy H. to subvert her world’s narrative constraints and present a story that can challenge the standard societal narrative.

The openly secretive nature of Kathy’s narrative is also rooted in the rhetorical pattern it follows. She makes a statement, complicates or undermines it, then moves on. In the first pages of the book, for example, Kathy H. chattily discusses her work and achievements. Though she claims that she is “not trying to boast,” it seems as if she takes pride in “being able to do [her] work well” (3). On the surface, it seems as if Kathy’s personal priorities and standards, the ways in which she defines her self-worth, align with the priorities and standards of the society in which she lives—the society that defines her as somehow not wholly human. But Kathy’s cheerful relation of her work, her admission that “Okay, maybe I am boasting now,” draws the reader’s attention to the rest of the novel’s opening. Kathy’s gloating is interwoven with increasingly contradictory statements in which she devalues her work, thus undermining or complicating the information she has already shared. “Now I know my being a carer so long isn’t necessarily because they think I’m fantastic at what I do”; “There are some really good carers who’ve been told to stop after just two or three years”; “one carer … went on for all of fourteen years despite being a complete waste of space” (3). It is in these complicating statements that the reader can, if he or she so desires, locate the “gift” of information offered as an open secret (François xiv); if the length of a carer’s career is not connected to the quality of their work, then perhaps the work of caring serves some other purpose.

Kathy H. also offers another open secret in her cyclical pattern of narration. Her initially chipper discussion of her work is full of increasingly negative comments about her life as a carer. “You try and do your best for every donor, but in the end, it wears you down,” she explains (4). These complaints are not downplayed. Instead, Kathy makes them innocuous; her complaints are so nonchalant that the reader can let them roll away without focusing on them, simply internalizing them as truth before moving on. As a result, Kathy’s supposition that “carers aren’t machines” (4) does not force the reader to consider the phrase’s full implications; if carers aren’t machines, then they must be human. This idea, in the context of Kathy H.’s world—a world where the creation and destruction of vast numbers of clones is possible because of the understanding that they are not, in fact, human—is revolutionary. Furthermore, the idea that clones are humans has its own wider ramifications; if carers, who go on to become donors, are fully human, then the donation system which harvests their organs is, in effect, murdering human beings. Thus, the bland, flat, noticeably unappalled voice that so many readers interpret as failing to rebel is, upon closer inspection, a tool used to convince, educate and indoctrinate the audience. Far from failing at revolution, Kathy H.’s narration is successfully working to bring outsiders to her revolution’s cause.

Direct Address in Narration

In addition to presenting a semi-hidden critique of the society in which she lives through a cyclical rhetorical pattern and the utilization of open secrets, Kathy H. employs another rhetorical tool that works to make her narrative one of resistance. Throughout the early sections of the book, Kathy H. directly addresses the reader, whom she seems to imply is also a carer (2) with phrases like “I don’t know how it was where you were” (13, 67; emphasis added). While some critics, as Ann Whitehead explains, argue that Kathy’s use of direct address is not intentional—that it is an “assumption” on her part that “speaks to the paucity of imagination and also the insularity of her life; how can she imagine difference when she has known only others like herself?”—such an argument is undermined by the technique’s frequency. Direct address occurs often in the first few pages of the book, but it ends about a third of the way through (Toker and Chertoff). It ceases once it has succeeded at its goal of inspiring sympathy and helping the reader identify with the narrator. By forcing readers to equate themselves with carers (and, through them, with the caste of clones she represents), Kathy H. primes them to view themselves, like all clones, as potential donors and, accordingly, as potential victims. Thus the reader becomes invested in her story. Regardless of whether or not they see Kathy H. herself as resisting the donation system, the audience resists. Kathy’s use of direct address is not evidence of her failure to relate to an audience outside herself; it is successful at establishing empathy that causes readers to want Kathy H. to rebel because, as they read, they feel threatened by the same danger.

Open Secrets in Opposition to Euphemistic Neologisms

The scene that best illustrates the subversive nature of Kathy H.’s use of language–a subversion rooted in open secrets and cyclical narrative patterns–is the one in which Kathy and her longtime friend and lover, Tommy (who is also her charge as a carer), confront Madame and Miss Emily, an administrator and guardian from Hailsham, the boarding-school like institution where Kathy and Tommy spent their childhood. Tommy and Kathy have come to request a deferral of their donation duties. They, like many other clones, have come to believe a rumor that if they can prove that they are truly in love, they will be allowed to spend some amount of time together before their organs are harvested. After being told that there is no chance of deferral–that her and Tommy’s fate to die as donors at the convenience of the state is sealed–Kathy H. asks Madame a question. Why had their life as children at Hailsham been centered on creating works of art? “If we’re just going to give donations anyway, then die, why all those lessons?” (259).

Kathy H.’s question follows the same narrative pattern as her introduction and as the indoctrination of clone-children at Hailsham. She introduces information (“if we’re just going to give donations anyway”), introduces a complication (“then die”), and moves on immediately (“why all those lessons”).

The complication here is rooted in the language Kathy H. uses. Throughout the book, when organ “donation” ends in fatality, a clone is said to have “completed.” This euphemism implies that the clone’s work is done, that they have finished something and made themselves whole. The language shapes the clone’s passing as a positive and desirable thing. The term “completion,” with its positive connotations, both reflects and reinforces the underlying idea that the donation system is inherently moral. But Kathy H. does not ask why she was given lessons if she would simply give donations and complete. For the first and only time in the entire novel, someone calls completion what it truly is: to complete is to die.

Kathy H. works this word (and its underlying implications) into her question so seamlessly that Madame does not notice it and goes on with the conversation. Her failure to confront Kathy H. for this word usage amounts to a tacit agreement with Kathy’s true statement, which is only barely hidden below the surface of her words: clones are humans and the donation system is murdering them.

After Kathy H. and Tommy leave Madame’s, Tommy goes on to go through another round of donations before his completion–his death. Kathy continues to work as a carer and, at the end of the novel, has resigned herself to moving on to the next stage of her life, her own turn as a donor. She does not escape. She does not rage. She does not rebel.

But Kathy H.’s narrative, taken as a whole, works to build awareness of her plight, of the injustice of her world. In the diegetic world of the novel, the narrative establishes the language and awareness necessary for those coming after to build a successful resistance. Kathy H.’s quietly subversive narrative plants the seed for a future revolution on the ground.

Extended Implications and Contextualization

Critics who view Never Let Me Go as a successful dystopian novel–who see the work as a tool Ishiguro uses to craft a larger argument about contemporary societies–tend to focus on how Kathy H.’s narrative and the modes it utilizes might be applicable to the world in which we live. Interestingly, these critics seem to be less frustrated by Kathy H.’s limited voice, seemingly lacking insight, and nonrevelatory style of revelation. For them, these are not proofs of failure. Instead, they look to how these potentially frustrating aspects of the novel’s narrative structure function rhetorically. Anne Whitehead argues that, “instead of agitating against the system, Kathy writes a confessional narrative” (74) that works, on the one hand, to garner sympathy and empathy for her kind (carers) on the part of the reader and, simultaneously, to question what it means to be a good carer (81); through Kathy H., Ishiguro challenges the reader to develop “an engagement with care, but also an awareness of its limits and its limitations” (81). Titus Levy argues that Never Lets Me Go is best read as a “dissensual Bildungsroman,” a “variation of the classic coming of age story that narrates the individual’s assimilation into the social order, while simultaneously protesting the oppressive social conditions that the state forces on its subjects” (1). Such a reading, Levy claims, allows the novel to be viewed as an “exploration of human rights” that “makes a constructive contribution to human rights discourse” by “[complicating] and [enriching] an ongoing discussion of the processes that allow human beings to respond to and cope with the worst atrocities” (15). Mark Jerng argues that, with Never Let Me Go, “Ishiguro begins to expand the narrative parameters of the human” in such a way that the very idea of what it is to be human that “emerges from this narrative is one that takes away the end-point as the culmination of a ‘fully-realized’ life,” directing us instead to “other, more unlikely places, around which to seek the dignity and form of human life” (391) in a thought process that has implications in many aspects of medical science and policy, especially personhood, genetic engineering and abortion debates. Similarly, Robbie B. H. Goh argues that “Ishiguro’s emphasis on the cloned body… raises a number of questions to do not only with the general condition of the human in an age of advanced biotechnology and commodity culture but also specifically with the position of the marginalized in society” (61). Thus, the novel complicates our understanding of global economies, the worth of underprivileged (and, especially, third-world) bodies, and how to ethically pursue continued medical advances.

That so many of the responses to Never Let Me Go contextualize it in terms of contemporary society–that they see the book as a commentary on what we do and how we do it–is evidence that, contrary to readers, reviewers and critics who see the book as a failure, Ishiguro’s novel is, in fact, a successful work of dystopian fiction. It pushes readers to wrestle with the problems of a seemingly perfect world.

In fact, even those readers who see Never Let Me Go as having failed to live up to their expectations of dystopian rebellion seem to be affected by Kathy H.’s quiet resistance. Complaints that “The quiet build-up of the story without moral commentary makes it especially disturbing” (Christian Century 23) gloss over the fact that it is Kathy’s narrative that highlights the need for moral commentary. Kathy H.’s narrative acts as a type of deferred dystopian revolution. Instead of waging a successful revolution in the novel, Kathy’s words succeed at opening a space for readers to think about what types of revolution, resistance and morality might be necessary in the real world.


Works Cited

François, Anne-Lise. Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2008. Print.

Goh, Robbie B. H. “The Postclone-nial in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome: Science and the Body in the Asian Diaspora.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 41.3 (2011): 45-71. Web.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go. New York: Vintage International Books, 2005.

Jerng, Mark. “Giving Form to Life: Cloning and Narrative Expectations of the Human.” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 6.2 (2008): 369-393. Print.

Levy, Titus. “Human Rights Storytelling and Trauma Narrative in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.” Journal of Human Rights 10 (2011): 1-16. Web.

Puchner, Martin. “When We Were Clones.” Rev. of Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Raritan: A Quarterly Review 27.4 (2008): 34-49. Print.

Rev. of Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Christian Century 13 Dec. 2005: 23. Web.

Toker, Leone and Daniel Chertoff. “Reader Response and the Recycling of Topoi in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 6.1 (2008): 163-80. Print.

Whitehead, Anne. “Writing with Care: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.” Contemporary Literature 52.1 (2011): 54-83. Print.