Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go: The Transformation of ‘Letting Go’

Kathy, Tommy and Ruth (from left to right) as portrayed in the film adaptation of the novel.
Kathy, Tommy and Ruth (from left to right) as portrayed in the film adaptation of the novel.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel Never Let Me Go (2005 ) is difficult to pin down under any particular genre. The novel is claimed by science fiction and dystopia genres, among others. The New Yorker writer Louis Menand described the novel as “quasi-science-fiction,” Sarah Kerr, writing for the New York Times, described it as a subversive exception in the “pop genre—sci-fi thriller” and the horror novelist Ramsey Campbell considers it a horror novel. However, at its core, the novel is about human relationships and perhaps the ability of those relationships to transcend the technologically complicated and dystopian systems they are entangled in. Perhaps Joseph O’Neill, writing for The Atlantic, frames it best when he described it as a “coming of age” novel, or a Bildungsroman.

The novel enters a position to teach us the most when read as a “coming of age” novel that traces the experiences of the main characters, Tommy, Ruth and Kathy, kids growing up in an intricate system designed to cultivate them into ‘organ donors’ for society. The institution they call home, Hailsham, appears as an ordinary boarding school in most ways, complete with teachers, art classes, playgrounds and the sheltered environment in which they explore the breadth of human emotions–pain, jealousy, anger, love, forgiveness–and cultivate their relationships. In this way, they grow up naively before learning about their inhuman status in society and the horrific fates that the government had planned for them pre-birth. But despite living in such a dystopia, the characters experience emotional conflict and relationships that has meaningfulness that exceeds their circumstances.

While each of the three main characters and their arc of growing up in the story is significant, Tommy and his transformation, or “coming of age” is an important track that explores the human emotion of anger and the meaning that can be derived from its transformation. Tommy faces the struggle of letting go of his anger, which we learn early on to be a central part of his temperament. His anger is described as a “childlike rage,” which he represses initially and must finally comes to terms with it through his relationship with Kathy. His anger goes through a transformation that mirrors his transformation as a person and educes a growth of maturity. While Ishiguro’s title “Never Let Me Go” suggests that the story will be about holding on, namely to relationships and memories, the story is also explores the value of letting things go as a way to transform and mature.

Learning to Let Go: Tommy’s Repression of Anger

Tommy’s anger is a continual presence in his childhood, often provoked by his peers because of its weakness:

“Laura shouted out something like: ‘Tommy! You got poo-poo on your back! What have you been doing?’ …Tommy came to a dead halt, wheeled round and stared at Laura with a face like thunder… for a few seconds I thought Tommy was going to blow for the first time in years. But then he abruptly stalked off, leaving us all swapping looks and shrugging.” (93)

Tommy has made efforts to let go of his anger, but rather than being shed, it has only been repressed. At this stage, Tommy has matured from being unable to control his angry outbursts to having repressed them enough to keep a superficial calm. However, he hasn’t reached the stage of maturity of finally letting go of his anger, a task that seems at this time impossible due to his young age and the psychological abuse that he has accumulated.

Similar recurrences in Tommy’s behavior surfaces episodically:

“A look had appeared in Tommy’s eyes that made me catch my breath. It…belonged to the Tommy who’d had to be barricaded inside a classroom while he kicked over desks. Then the look faded, he turned to the sky outside and let out a heavy breath.” (155)

Tommy’s anger shows for a fleeting moment before he lets it go with a deep breath. The act of letting go appears brief and easy for Tommy in the way the text suggests that he suppresses his anger quickly and subtly. However, there seems to be more underneath the surface. The reference back to a moment in Tommy’s past, although it occurred many years ago, raises the threat that Tommy might revert to a former and childlike self. While Tommy transforms and progresses, he is also always being compared to his former behavior. The threat of reversing all his efforts at transformation in a single moment of rage is frightening to think of for his close friend Kathy.

Learning to Let Go: Anger Must be Expressed

Tommy remarkably sustains his transformation from a hot-headed child to a superficially cool-headed and reasonable one through his repression of anger. We learn that he does this, because he clings onto belief and hope. In ways, his inclination to hope and believe gives him the courage and motivation to put aside his anger, but they also leave him particularly vulnerable and volatile in facing a cruel reality because of the psychological strain of repression. Near the end of the story, a difficult truth–that his relationship with Kathy is futile and illegitimate in the system he lives in–destroys Tommy’s idealism. At that point, he finally breaks down and gives in to an outburst. “I was already out of the car when the second and third screams came, and by then I knew it was Tommy… I could make out in the mid-distance…Tommy’s figure, raging, shouting, flinging his fists and kicking out” (273-274). This scene depicts Tommy in the dead of the night after having learned from Miss Emily that he wouldn’t get a deferral and, most importantly, that he wouldn’t be able to reunite with Kathy. He doesn’t allow his anger to dissipate as usual but lets it fly rampantly. In a sense, he lets his anger go more than ever before but in a way that is a return to his childlike rage. In the light of Tommy’s despair, the role that hope and confidence had played in regulating his behavior becomes clearer.

Tommy doesn’t end in despair thankfully, as Kathy comes to Tommy’s rescue in a poignant passage:

“I reached for his flailing arms and held them tight. He tried to shake me off, but I kept holding on, until he stopped shouting and I felt the fight go out of him. Then I realized he too had his arm around me. And so we stood together like that, at the top of that field, for what seemed like ages, not saying anything, just holding each other” (274).

Tommy screams in angst.
Scene from the film where Tommy and Kathy embrace after Tommy screams in angst.

The love that binds Tommy and Kathy is displayed most strongly in this scene. Tommy’s anger dissipates when Kathy holds onto him. Here, the passage is about how holding onto what’s left—two lovers’ love for the other—can ease the letting go of anger at lost hope. Tommy finally lets go of his anger through expressing his love for Kathy.

Never Let Me Go raises key questions about the kinds of things that we let go and we hold onto and relationships between them. It asks what we let go of when we hold onto anger, love and hope, and vice versa. Tommy and Kathy’s love story ends tragically, because they are never allowed to fulfill their potential as lovers. Unlike a classical dystopian novel, such as Orwell’s 1984, the novel still carries a thread of hope, which lies in the fleeting love and friendship between Tommy and Kathy. Tommy and Kathy are tragically separated in the end, but the humanity of their relationships is remembered in the story itself. Tommy and Kathy’s lives are meaningful; they mature despite their circumstances and manage to find love in a society that makes doing so difficult. The novel’s attention to humanistic themes complicates its classification under so many genres. While the novel features attributes of science fiction, dystopia and horror novels, its main trope is the significance of relationship and transformation, making it of particularly universal appeal.

Works Cited

Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Print.

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  1. Sachiko

    I had previously avoided this book, having heard it referred to as British science fiction. And when I hear “British science fiction,” I think of Dr. Who. Then I think about all those childhood snuff film fantasies where Captain Kirk zaps him.

  2. After reading the last chapter, I honestly didn’t know how to feel. Tapped out emotionally, I just desperately needed a hug.

    • Shantae Sams

      A testament to Ishiguro’s skill in crafting a story, not just words.

  3. Gillian

    This book has fast become one of my favorites … ever.

  4. This book is basically ourselves, seen through a glass, darkly.

  5. i finished never let me go two nights ago and i wish i had written it

  6. Chin Mch

    This book is incredibly creepy and it’s really hard to imagine it was written by the same author who wrote The Remains of the Day.

  7. All in all it provides some interesting ideas… what if our society does develop in this manner… and cloning becomes widespread and this occurs… I’d have to be against that, myself but mainly because I read this book and feel bad for the main character, who is of course a clone.

  8. The entire scenario is completely and utterly implausible and I feel the author just didn’t bother trying to think it through.

    • Matlock

      That! The scenario of this book does not stand up to any scrutiny of its political, legal, economical, social, psychological and scientific premises. The author has made no attempts to make it in the least bit plausible and indeed the world the clones inhabit remains vague, without contours. He hasn’t taken the trouble to invest any efforts into world building, he has simply said “alternative England” without thinking through in what way and by virtue of what changes it is alternative.

      The novel has no ethical or philosophical substance, because all its premises are flimsier than gauze.

      Everything in the book is only there to shock and emotionally manipulate the reader. This book is an epic fail. And from the author of such an exquisite novel as “The Remains of the Day,” this is doubly and triply disappointing.

      • I think you are missing the point of the novel. As Ishiguro has said, the dystopian world is merely a “device” for a story in which the characters have short lives. This is not a novel about cloning as such, it is a novel about discovering the value of love and friendship, about discovering one’s identity, and about dealing with the inevitability of the human condition.

  9. chilton

    I read this book in a single session.

  10. Ishiguro is the crown prince of the anti-climax, the pope of pointlessness, the CEO of ennui.

  11. This book irritated the hell out of me. And I think it was extra disappointing because I am a fan of both coming of age stories and alternate reality fiction so I assumed it would be right up my ally.

  12. Mary Awad

    This is such a great book. Absolutely awesome! Every aspect of this book builds a sickening but plausible world and the humanity of the characters is great. Nice article~

  13. I read this book a while ago and never managed to connect the idea of ‘never let me go’ to the anger felt by the characters at their place in society. I think this is an extremely refreshing outlook on the novel. When I first read it, I thought that the title referred to the hope with which the characters lived. Tommy’s hope that he would be reunited with Kathy again was something he held on to until the very last moment. Once that was gone, he had nothing left.

  14. If you go through the whole book wondering when the penny is going to drop, it never does. Nothing drops. There is no penny.

    • And I think that’s what makes the books so compelling and powerful. As Miss lucy tells the students, they -and we- “are told and not told”.

  15. Roy Rico

    I may be the last person to have finally gotten around to reading this book, and surely I’m the only person who hasn’t seen the movie.

  16. The ending was abrupt and the book lacked important details that would have made the world it was written in better built.

  17. Terry Adams

    I’ve always wanted to read this, but I just haven’t made the plunge yet (probably because I normally don’t like science fiction).

  18. This. Book. Is. Amazing.

  19. Emilie Medland-Marchen

    Tommy’s rage is made even more devastating as it directly contrasts the apathy of Kathy and her inability to change the world around her. Tommy’s constant drive to prove that he is truly in love, and thus gain his and Kathy’s sovereignty, drives the later part of the novel. Kathy seems to be a complicit narrator, relaying events that happen to her and other Hailsham students that they are either unable or unwilling to change. But although Tommy’s rage is enough to drive him to attempt to change his own life, it is not enough to drive him to overthrow the oppressive system he lives in. This hits at the heart of the devastating quality of the novel; the combination of Kathy’s apathy and Tommy’s unwillingness to direct his anger results in a desolate world that is loathe to change, and hope itself becomes hopeless.

  20. I’m glad the writer pointed out that the most appropriate genre is Bildungsroman.There’s nothing more annoying than seeing NLMG described as science fiction. What kind of sane human being puts this book in the same category as Ender’s Game and Brave New World?
    And the scene chosen for showing Tommy and Kathy’s love is the most intense one. I cry every time I watch it.

  21. Character development seems important here, particularly in the face of hardship.

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