Spoilers for Never Let Me Go follow.
One of the central questions of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go is: What makes us human? This might seem like an abstract, philosophical issue. However, for the novel’s protagonists, it’s literally a matter of life and death. They’re students at Hailsham, an elite boarding school. They gradually realize they’re clones, destined to be killed for their organs. By having characters try to prove clones’ humanity, the novel provides a nuanced metaphor for oppressive, dehumanizing systems and how they function.
As the three main characters (Tommy, Kathy, and Ruth) reach their teens, they hear a rumor about “deferrals.” Couples might get their organ donations delayed if they can sufficiently prove they’re in love. They remember one woman they called Madame, who selected their art for inclusion in “the Gallery.” Teachers said their art revealed their souls.
When they finally meet with Madame, they learn the devastating truth: deferrals don’t exist. The true purpose of the Gallery wasn’t to showcase talented students or demonstrate romantic compatibility. The Gallery—like Hailsham itself, now closed—was an attempt to prove that the clones were fully human. Instead of raising them in an organ farm, like livestock for slaughter, Hailsham was the more humane alternative. Miss Emily, their former head guardian, explains that she’d appeal to other non-clone adults: “Look at this art! How dare you claim these children are anything less than fully human?” (262) Although the alternate world of this novel might seem unthinkable, as a metaphor for atrocity and dehumanization in general, it’s chilling.
Mimi Wong’s excellent 2018 Electric Literature essay argues that Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy can be read both literally as people of color and as an incisive metaphor for people of color assimilating into racist systems. Set in an alternate version of the 1990s, the novel says that people forgot the value of human life after World War II. So, possible parallels to colonialism, human trafficking, and genocide had occurred to me. However, in an example of white bias, I hadn’t remembered that the characters’ races are not specified. I love the movie, in which the main characters are white, but that doesn’t mean they must be white in the novel.
Ishiguro’s writing style is brilliantly subtle. The novel never tells us how to feel about the evil it depicts. It often uses euphemisms to obscure the horror. Teachers like Miss Emily are still agents of an evil system, although they try to fight it from within. To me, this feels beside the point: a little like observing that some slaveowners or Nazis weren’t as evil as others. Implicitly, the novel asks if being a good person in such an evil system is possible or relevant.
Like many well-intentioned advocates, teachers like Miss Emily make a fatal mistake: playing by a rigged system’s rules. Intersecting systems of oppression, including racism and ableism, put the onus on marginalized people to prove our worth and humanity. Simply by asking us to do this, though, these systems show that they’ll always consider us inferior. White, non-disabled, cishet men are often considered capable and relatable by default, in school, workplaces, and in art. Everyone else must be exceptional to get similar consideration.
Miss Emily’s words unintentionally suggest that children can overcome their identities. She explains: “We demonstrated to the world that if students were reared in humane, cultivated environments, it was possible for them to grow to be as sensitive and intelligent as any ordinary human being” (261). Ironically, she doesn’t seem conscious that she still considers the clones inferior. For Miss Emily, clones’ equality is conditional, not guaranteed. She wants them to have a chance to prove or earn their humanity. This is the language of assimilation, where children who are different can only aspire to become average or “ordinary.” She echoes the most harmful teachers, therapies, and schools, whose goal is getting disabled students of all races and all students of color to seem more like their white, non-disabled peers. Oppressive systems ask marginalized people to transcend their identities.
Without stating it directly, the novel refutes the idea that art, ability, or attraction makes us human. That the teachers think so shows how indoctrinated they really are. Tommy’s art is a source of anxiety and contention in the story. When he’s a child, classmates tease him for his supposed lack of talent, and teachers comfort him. Later, he tries to use his art as evidence of his love for Kathy.
When we learn the purpose of the Gallery, we finally understand why the teachers considered students’ art so important. The teachers are grasping at a fallacy in their desire to help the children. Tommy’s art doesn’t prove that he’s human. Neither does falling in love or wanting romance or sex. The problem is that his society created him to use as an object. Never Let Me Go shows that if oppressors want to ignore people’s humanity, playing by their rules to prove otherwise is futile.