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Literature: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go is a 2005 science fiction/romance/drama novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day. The plot concerns three friends, Kathy, who narrates, Tommy and Ruth, who as children are students of Hailsham, an unusual boarding school in the isolated English countryside. As Kathy nears adulthood, the truth about Hailsham and its students is gradually revealed to the reader.

A movie adaptation was released in 2010 starring Carey Mulligan as Kathy, Keira Knightley as Ruth, and Andrew Garfield as Tommy.


The novel provides examples of:

  • Activist Fundamentalist Antics: Inverted - no matter how horrible things get, no one ever shows any outrage against the system. Two of the three protagonists have emotional outbursts of disapproval and almost hate, but always aiming at themselves.
  • Alpha Bitch: Ruth
  • Alternate History
  • Betty and Veronica: Kathy is Betty, becoming a carer in the end of the film, while Ruth is Veronica, playing with people's hearts.
  • Boarding School
  • Break the Cutie: Played with. The third act of the film is essentially a slow-motion Break the Cutie for all three of the main characters, but in-universe the donor programme is set up so that no-one regards them as cuties at all.
  • Childhood Friend Romance Pretty obvious with Kathy and Tommy
  • Clones Are People Too: The real objective of Hailsham's Gallery was to prove this trope.
  • Cloning Blues: Ruth has an especially bad case.
  • Conditioned to Accept Horror: Not stated outright for some time, but a Genre Savvy reader is going to have a tough time shaking the feeling that something awful is behind the students of Hailsham. Kathy mentions she suspects they are deliberately told things about what they are when they are just a little too young to understand them, so that by the time they can process the implications, they've accepted it as a fact of life.
  • Crapsaccharine World: Hailsham seems at first to be an idyllic children's boarding school full of happy, rosey-cheeked children...
  • Crapsack World: A world where harvesting humans for parts is the norm scores fairly high on the crapsack meter.
  • Creating Life Is Awesome: The artificial humans are kind and compassionate, and so are the humans who try to help them. Ironically, society doesn't want them to be good - it's easier to justify exploiting them if one can pretend that they are soulless.
  • Creative Sterility: Averted - the stated reason for why it is so important for the students of Hailsham to be creative. The teachers wanted to prove that clones were just like everyone else.
  • Cure For Cancer: the clones.
  • Deadly Euphemism: The "Recovery" Centres are hospices for the donors to inhabit until they "complete".
  • Downer Ending
  • Dying Alone: Ruth's greatest fear in the first parts of the story. Later replaced by regret and a desperate hope that her loved ones will at least be allowed to have each other.
  • Extranormal Institute
  • Face Death with Dignity: the students we follow in the story do this to a remarkable degree.
  • Fantastic Aesop: If you interpret the story as purely literal rather than Rule of Symbolism, it all boils down to cloning people so you can cut them up for spare parts is bad.
  • First Name Basis: Donors aren't considered human enough to have surnames and have to make do with a single letter.
  • Flatline: Subverted. When Ruth flatlines, she's surrounded by medical professionals who keep going about their job of killing her.
  • Free-Love Future: Since the students can't have children, sex isn't a taboo for them and everyone is pretty open about it.
  • Go Out with a Smile: In the movieverse where Kathy is watching Tommy have his final surgery before completing and Tommy turns to her and they exchange sad smiles before being knocked out for the surgery.
  • Gone Horribly Right: The whole creepy system seems to run like a Swiss watch.
  • Hope Spot: It's a sign of the lack of love of life that the donors are brought up with that deferring for three or four years before you are killed is considered the best the characters can hope for. And it soon becomes apparent that deferrals are just something else which has never existed.
  • Human Resources: In this society it's accepted.
  • I Just Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Ruth, in the later parts of the story.
  • Inconvenient Hippocratic Oath: Creepily averted. In the film version, the hospitals are always shown slowly and deliberately murdering people. Obviously the "And I shall do no harm" code only applies to certain patients. And the worst part is the constant undercurrent of humiliation and shame as the victims are so clearly and ultimately shown that they are considered to be without real human value.
  • Internalized Categorism: The perhaps most painful aspect of the story is that the characters never overcome their social conditioning. The government plan to murder them for no reason other than harvesting their internal organs, and they really don't want to die. They spend the story agonizing over their lives being cut short, grasping for straws as they try to find loopholes so they'll be allowed to stay alive a little longer, and feeling guilty about taking out their angst on each other. But none of them ever dare to admit even to themselves that the system is unfair, that they actually deserve to be allowed to live. They have been given an identity as sacrificial victims, and while they hate their place in life they fail to break free from this imposed image of who and what they are.
  • Life Will Kill You: The film version ends with the protagonist thinking about how ordinary people are Not So Different after all, how we are all living our lives on death row.
  • Monochrome Casting.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: Many TV advertisements for the film version made it look like your typical romantic drama. Nope, no science fiction or cloning in this movie...
  • One-Letter Name: Their surnames are only a letter. Part of how the system tries to dehumanise them.
  • Orphanage of Love: Hailsham doubles as this, since all its students are orphans.
  • People Farms: How donors are reported to be raised after Hailsham closed.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: Oh, this great system, saving so many lives...
  • Questionable Consent: The protagonists and others are getting exploited in the most brutal way, and they have all been conditioned to unquestioningly accept the system.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Tommy is an emotional child and does this whenever he's teased and does so again as an adult when he finds out deferrals are a lie. It's also the closest anyone comes to rage against the system.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Ruth and Kathy respectively.
  • Retraux: In the movie.
  • Science Is Bad: For at least some in the alternate society. But Just Think of the Potential!
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Nobody even tries to do anything about their situation, then they die.
  • Show, Don't Tell: In the movie, much of the jargon surrounding the Donor programme is never explicitly defined even by the narration and it's left to the viewer to infer meaning from context.r
  • The Soulless: Subverted in that while society prefers to see the students as without souls, they are clearly no different from regular people.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Tom and Kathy, first coerced into a Love Triangle by Poisonous Friend Ruth and when they finally do get together, Tom is soon "completed".
  • Stiff Upper Lip: Kathy keeps hers in the face of unimaginable loss.
  • Sugary Malice: Ruth has a bit of this, fueled by her fear of being left alone. Far worse, however, is the clinical kindness that the system shows its victims while pushing them down into despair and death.
  • They Would Cut You Up
  • Totalitarian Utilitarian: The system, saving so many lives. Also the protagonists themselves, conditioned to disregard life and dignity for the greater good.. their own lives.
  • Turned Against Their Masters: Subverted - the audience keeps waiting for even one of the donors to rebel, but amazingly it never happens.
  • Tracking Chip: The students have microchips implanted in their wrists.
  • Tragic Dream: Kathy and Tommy hoping to prove that they were in love so that they could have a few more years together. The reader knows this isn't going to work and the naivete of the characters in thinking that it will is rather heartbreaking. Worse yet, this is really Ruth's dream, with her getting them together in a desperate attempt to save them.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: And how. Just about everything that's spoiler sensitive on this page is all but explicitly revealed in the trailer for the film.
  • Triang Relations: Elements of type four.
  • Twenty Minutes into the Future
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: In this amazing world, people live long healthy lives to well past 100 years old. There's only one little unpleasant thing that everyone would rather not see or discuss.
  • Viewers Are Morons: Not exactly, but test audiences for The Movie were so confused about when the film takes place (a very isolated area a la The Village or The Island? An alternate universe?) that they didn't pay attention to the characters' relationships or the ending. To fix this, a title card was added (with the author's approval) at the beginning puts the film in an alternate universe version of The Nineties.
  • Walking Transplant: This is explained in a matter of fact way to the students, and they accept their fate.
  • Would Be Rude to Say "Genocide": People "are completed" on an industrial scale. And "completed" actually equals "murdered".
  • X Meets Y: The Island meets The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.
  • You Have No Chance to Survive: The students at Hailsham and other donors

AccelerandoArthur C. Clarke AwardBlack Man
The NecklaceLit FicThe New York Trilogy
Minority ReportScience Fiction FilmsNeXT
Mystery TeamFilms of the 2010sThe Next Three Days
N.E.R.D.S.Literature of the 2000sNew Amsterdam Books
NeuropathScience Fiction LiteratureThe New Dinosaurs An Alternative Evolution

alternative title(s): Never Let Me Go; Never Let Me Go
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