Hiding in the Shadows

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go offers up a world in which human cloning for future organ donation is more than just possible—it has become both a reality and, for the young students of Hailsham academy, a way of life. By keeping the focus of the novel on Kathy, one of these cloned “students,” and her friends and then lovers, Ishiguro manages to create a poignant, thought-provoking look at the potential ramifications of scientific progress without resorting to either fear-mongering or broadly defined satire. The bewildering world of the novel trickles down to the reader through Kathy’s gradual process of coming into consciousness (or her memories of this process), creating an increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere even as the world itself is thrown into ever-clearer and harsher light. The characters in the novel never seem to fully realize, or at least never acknowledge, the harshness of their reality, however, nor do they attempt any violent resistance to their fate (to become a “carer” and then a “donor” until they “complete” by dying around the age of 30, if not earlier). Kathy and her friends, particularly the otherwise headstrong Ruth, cling to a sort of willful ignorance, remaining childlike even as they mature and take up their roles as carers and donors. Interestingly, this willful ignorance seems to have parallels in the reaction of society at large to the creation of human clones and the development of this infrastructure for their organ donation. As Miss Emily describes it during Kathy and Tommy’s climactic (or rather anticlimactic) trip to confront Madame, scientific progress outpaced the public’s ability to grapple with new technologies and repercussions, and thus the outside world (from which we, like the central characters, are almost wholly cut off) continually thrusts the very notion of “students” and their purpose “into the shadows” (262).

By pushing what is morally troubling or traumatic to the periphery, both society at large and the students themselves attempt to create safe spaces for coping with what they refuse to, or simply cannot, confront. Society pretends that “students” do not exist (as indeed, by the end of the novel, they no longer do, at least in the Hailsham sense of the term), and the students pretend that their lives are in fact free. The claustrophobic tone of the novel clearly shows that, at least at some moments, the students’ efforts fail—and these are the moments at which the novel becomes frankly rather heart-breaking (though Kathy and her peers never see their lives in this way). The elaborately, almost needlessly complex structures and traditions that govern the students’ lives, from their British “public school” upbringing to the opaque nature of their assignments and responsibilities as carers and donors (whom they’re assigned to, where they stay for post-donation rehabilitations, when their next donations are scheduled, when they make the switch from a carer to a donor), seem to be society’s feeble attempts to cope with (or make amends for) the new kind of humans they have created. They create elaborate, half-fantastic stories and rituals to normalize the process of organ donation for themselves and for the students, but the excessive intricacy and arbitrariness of these structures belie their ability to succeed. The students create similarly elaborate myths, such as the idea of “deferral,” though this impulse makes sense—to stave off doubts and horrors about the future, the students mimic the complex tradition-building processes they have been brought up with. In Kathy’s world, the only options out there are building elaborate coping mechanisms—it seems almost impossible that this society will truly be able to confront the ongoing work being perpetuated “in the shadows,” as it were, as too much time has been lost to deliberate self-mystification. In this way, Ishiguro emphasizes the importance social engagement with scientific progress in addition to active disclosure on the part of those in control of such experimentation, from the very start. Learning bits and pieces of a full picture, or refusing to learn at all, merely leads to mass delusion and, if this book is any gauge, some serious (albeit quiet) heartbreak.

-Heather Freeman

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~ by Heather on April 2, 2009.

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