Never Let Me Go: What it Means to be Human

Category: Never Let Me Go
Last Updated: 25 May 2023
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Ishiguro’s novel is not really a science fiction story, because science fiction writers usually try to explain how the technology they write about (in this novel, cloning) works. Ishiguro just says that cloning and harvesting is taking place, without saying anything about how it works. Never Let Me Go is really about what it means to be human.

The novel is narrated by Kathy, who used to be a student at Hailsham but is now a carer. A carer is a person who helps people through their donations. Kathy does not explain right away what a carer or a donor is, because finding that out is what the whole book is about. Kathy keeps talking about different memories she has from going to school at Hailsham and from growing up, and as she keeps talking, we start to understand what carers and donors are.

The beginning of the book makes you think that the children at Hailsham are normal children, who go to classes, play sports, and even tease each other. They do not pick Tommy to play soccer with them, even though he is one of the best players, because he gets angry and makes playing no fun for anyone else. When Tommy is not picked, he responds like any normal child would: “Then he began to scream and shout, a nonsensical jumble of swear words and insults” (9).

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Tommy is also not creative, which makes the other children at Hailsham not like him because he never has anything to put in the Exchanges, which are the special times at the school where the children trade the different creative things they have made, like poems, sculptures, and paintings, and where the best things they make are selected to be taken out of the school to go to a special exhibit. The best things are taken away to the Gallery by Madame, a woman who visits the school occasionally and is “afraid of us in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders. We hadn’t been ready for that” (35). Madame is afraid of the children because they are clones, but the children do not know what they are yet, so they do not understand what she could be afraid of.

During the first part of Never Let Me Go, the students at Hailsham keep hearing the guardians talk about how the children should know more, but they are not told what that means. When the guardians see a student, they always stop talking about what the children should know. Some of the guardians give the children hints about who they are, like when Miss Lucy tells them, “It’s not good that I smoked. It wasn’t good for me so I stopped it. But what you must understand is that for you, all of you, it’s much, much worse to smoke than it ever was for me” (68). Because they will eventually be donors for people who need their organs, it would be especially bad for the children to smoke because smoking would damage their organs.

Another time when they children get a hint of who they are is when Kathy is listening to her tape of “Never Let Me Go.” While she sings along with it and pretends she is dancing with her baby, she looks up and sees that Madame is watching her (71). Madame is crying, because she knows that Kathy will never be able to have a baby, but she runs away and does not say anything to Kathy.

One day, Miss Lucy tells the children what they really are: “Your lives are set out for you. You’ll become adults, then before you’re old, before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll start to donate your vital organs. That’s what each of you was created to do” (80). No one is really surprised by what Miss Lucy tells them, because they have sort of known all along what they were going to be. Miss Lucy was just the first one to tell them directly.

After the children leave the school and go to the cottages, they continue growing up like normal children. They have boyfriends and girlfriends, do their homework, talk, and fight with each other sometimes. The cottages are where they go when they are too old to stay at Hailsham but are not old enough to live in the real world or become donors yet. They do get to go on trips sometimes, and on one of these trips, Ruth, Kathy’s best friend, tries to find her “possible,” the person who is possibly the original person she was cloned from (139).

When Tommy was still a student at Hailsham, Miss Lucy told him that it was not important that he was not creative or artistic, but later she told him that she had been wrong when she said that. Tommy ends up thinking that Miss Lucy meant that “the thing about being from Hailsham was that you had this special chance. And if you didn’t get into Madame’s gallery, then you were as good as throwing that chance away” (176).

At this point in the story, the children think that if they are artistic, it will give them a chance to delay becoming donors. But since Tommy never got anything into the Gallery, he is afraid that he might have missed his chance. That is not why it was important for the students at Hailsham to be artistic, though. The best things the children made, the ones that were taken to the Gallery, were taken there because Madame wanted to show people on the outside that clones could make paintings and write poems, because she thought that if everyone saw what they could do, they would think the cloned kids were real people.

This is most important point in the book. Ishiguro wrote Never Let Me Go to ask the question of what makes a human being a real person, and one of the things the book talks about is that if clones can be creative and make beautiful art, then maybe they are real people, because only real people can make beautiful things. When Tommy starts thinking about trying to delay when he becomes a donor, he starts making little drawings that he wants to show to Madame because he hopes that maybe it is not too late for him to show what he can do.

At the end of Never Let Me Go, Tommy, Kathy, and Ruth try to find Madame because they think she can get the time when they have to start donating their organs pushed back. Ruth has already started donating, so she wants Tommy and Kathy to become a couple and ask for themselves. They find Madame’s house and go in, and they tell her that they are really in love. They also ask her about the gallery, and they tell her that they think the things they put into it could show her what they were really like. Madame tells them, “Your art will reveal your inner selves! That’s it, isn’t it? Because your art will display your souls” (254)!

Madame stops talking then, and Miss Emily starts talking to Tommy and Kathy. Miss Emily was a guardian at Hailsham. She tells them that the rumor about getting a deferral is not true, and that for most people, the hope of getting a deferral is just “something for them to dream about, a harmless little fantasy” (258) because they never actually try to find out if the dream is true. Another point Ishiguro makes about what is means to be human comes from this part of the book. He seems to be saying that wanting to find out what your purpose in life is, to dream about it and then to try and make your dreams come true, is part of what it means to really be human.

When Miss Emily tells them that the purpose of the gallery was to try and prove that they really did have souls, Kathy asks, “Why did we have to prove a thing like that, Miss Emily? Did someone think we didn’t have souls” (260)? Kathy assumes that everyone thinks that they have souls even though they are clones, but Miss Emily tells her that now, no one thinks clones have souls, because “all around the country, at this very moment, there are students being reared in deplorable conditions, conditions you Hailsham students could hardly imagine. And now we’re no more, things will only get worse” (261).

Close to the end of the novel, after they leave Madame and Miss Emily, Tommy makes Kathy pull the car over. He gets out and Kathy goes after him, and she sees “Tommy’s figure, raging, shouting, flinging his fists and kicking out” (274). He is shouting because he is so upset about what he has learned from Miss Emily, that no one thinks clones have souls or are real people. In a way, he does the same things at the end of the book that he does at the beginning, except that at the beginning, he was shouting and screaming because no one picked him for soccer, but now he is screaming because so many people think he is not a real person.

When Tommy cries at the end of the book, and when Kathy tries to comfort him, you have to feel sad for everything they have gone through, and for what they have learned. They have acted like real people their entire lives, they have gone to school and drawn pictures and fallen in love, but now society is telling them that they are just clones and that their only purpose is to give up their organs. Ishiguro wants us to feel sad for Kathy and Tommy, and for all the clones, because he wants us to think that they are real people.

If the clones really are there just so other people can have organs, then we should not feel bad for them. It’s kind of like how most people do not feel bad for farm animals like cows and pigs when they are killed, because they think that the purpose of a cow or a pig’s life is to be killed so humans can eat them. But by showing us how real the things the students from Hailsham are, and how they things they go through are the same as what any normal person goes through, Ishiguro is saying that it is what you do and who you are, not why or how you were made, that makes you really human.


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Never Let Me Go: What it Means to be Human. (2017, May 13). Retrieved from

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