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Literature / Never Let Me Go

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"I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it's just too much. The current's too strong. They've got to let go, drift apart. That's how it is with us. It's a shame, Kath, because we've loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can't stay together forever."

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 at 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 and film provide examples of:

  • Alternate History: Where instead of nuclear physics being the dominant science after WWII, cloning was. This results in a timeline where humans can regularly live past 100 and illness has been eradicated.Of course, only due to the medical exploitation of clones.
  • 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: Hailsham is this, with a few notable differences from a regular 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: Sparks have been flying between the three main characters since their childhood. Eventually, Kathy and Tommy end up together, but not before Ruth throws a wrench in things.
  • Children as Pawns: Essentially stated by Miss Emily in The Reveal that the Hailsham clones were 'lucky pawns' in her plan to convince society that Clones Are People, Too.
  • Clones Are People, Too: The real objective of Hailsham's Gallery was to prove this trope. And... it failed. Or, almost, it succeeded too well — the world didn't want to consider that clones could be people, because that would mean giving up their safer, disease-free world. So Hailsham was defunded and the clones were pushed back into the shadows.
  • Cloning Blues: Ruth has trouble accepting the fact that she and the other characters are expendable clones, and has something of a breakdown over it.
  • Conditioned to Accept Horror:
    • Not stated outright for some time, but it's increasingly implied that something awful lies 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.
    • Society as a whole sees no problem with harvesting clones for body parts.
  • Crapsaccharine World: Hailsham seems at first to be an idyllic children's boarding school full of happy, rosy-cheeked children. The truth about society as a whole is worse.
  • Crapsack World: A world where harvesting humans for parts is the norm scores fairly high on the crapsack meter, although most of society doesn't see it this way.
  • Creating Life Is Awesome: The cloned 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.
  • Cure for Cancer: The clones have been exploited to cure cancer and many other diseases.
  • Deadly Euphemism: The "Recovery" Centres are hospices for the donors to inhabit until they "complete".
  • Downer Ending: Ruth and Tommy die and Kathy will die eventually. There is no deferral, and institutes promoting treating the clones as people are being defunded and closed down, meaning it will only get worse for them.
  • 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.
  • Dystopia: As is Miss Emily's point at the end of the film, human are free of serious illness and live to over 100, which would usually be regarded as something of a utopian circumstance. However, the lives of the clones are very dystopic: no family, strict boarding schools, no ability to have children, donating organs then premature death. And they are conditioned to accept this as the only way of life, and that escape causes pain.
  • Expendable Clone: Widespread in the setting; clones only exist as organ donors for "normal" people.
  • Extranormal Institute: At Hailsham, the students don't learn anything that a normal boarding school population would learn and instead focus all their energy on creative projects. And, of course, they're all clones who have been acclimated to the reality that they will die young.
  • 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: Played with. 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.
  • 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 the concept 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 never existed.
  • Human Resources: In this society it's widely accepted that clones are harvested for parts.
  • I Just Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Ruth accepts that she was wrong in separating Kathy and Tommy and wishes for them to be together despite her own feelings for the latter 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: Perhaps the 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.
  • Just Ignore It: It is hinted and subsequently revealed by Miss Emily that most people on the outside wilfully ignore the cruelty inflicted on clones.
    Miss Emily: 'So for a long time you were kept in the shadows, and people did their best not to think about you. And if they did, they tried to convince themselves you weren’t really like us. That you were less than human, so it didn’t matter.'
  • Life Will Kill You: The film version ends with the protagonist thinking about how ordinary people aren't so different after all, how we are all living our lives on death row.
  • Love Triangle: Ruth loves Tommy, despite his and Kathy's mutual attraction. Later, Kathy is obviously pining after Tommy despite his relationship with Ruth.
  • Monochrome Casting: The main cast is overwhelmingly white.
  • 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...
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The book holds back most if not all of the details about the donations, keeping it vague what was actually donated and what procedures were performed.
  • One-Letter Name: The characters' surnames are only a letter. Part of how the system tries to dehumanise them while emphasising their lack of human connections.
  • 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 is the livelier, more spirited Red to Kathy's more reserved, unemotional Blue.
  • 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.
  • Slut-Shaming: Ruth intentionally does this to a sexually active Kathy to make her feel like Tommy wouldn't want to be with her.
  • 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: Tommy and Kathy, first coerced into a Love Triangle by 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.
  • Symbolic Distance: The novel utilises this trope various times.
    • This trope appears subtly throughout the whole book, in how clones and 'patients' are kept separate, as they are refused by most to be seen as human. Kathy imagines how the 'quiet country roads' exist just for the clones, while the big 'super motorways' exist for everyone else.
    • Occurs when Tommy is having his final screaming fit, having just learned the deferrals were a lie and he and Kathy cannot be together for much longer. Kathy tries to go after him but the mud sucks her feet down, and for a time she can only watch him from afar on top of a hill, contrastingly calm. Eventually she breaks the distance and holds him tight, as if "that was the only way to stop us being swept away into the night".
    • Kathy, towards the end of the book, considers this between her and her friends, imagining a line separating her and Tommy from Ruth, regarding how Ruth 'finished differently' to them as she never learnt the truth of the deferrals.
      "When all's said and done, I feel sad about that, and I think she would too if she could see it".
  • 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: In the movie, the students have microchips implanted in their wrists. It is honestly more intriguing that in the book they do not have a tracking device. In fact, there is nothing stopping them from disappearing forever and integrating into society. But no one ever does.
  • Tragic Dream: Kathy and Tommy hope to prove that they are 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.
  • 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.
  • Walking Transplant: This is explained in a matter of fact way to the students, and they accept their fate.
  • Wham Line: Subverted. Miss Lucy tells the young students that they're just walking organ donors and will be harvested until they die, but it doesn't shock the children, who have long since been resigned to their fate.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Kathy herself questions this, especially at the end of the film, noting that humans and clones aren't so different, but the latter will continue to be dehumanized and treated poorly.
  • Would Be Rude to Say "Genocide":
    • People "are completed" on an industrial scale. And "completed" actually equals "murdered".
    • The word "donor" implies that the thing donated is given by choice.