Never Let Me Go

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Themes and Colors
Maturation and “Growing Up” Theme Icon
Individual Goals vs. Social Expectations Theme Icon
Losing and Finding Theme Icon
Life, Death, and Humanity Theme Icon
Loving, Caring, and Donation Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Never Let Me Go, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Life, Death, and Humanity Theme Icon

Although the clones have different biological “beginnings” from other human beings in England—who are glimpsed only fleetingly in the novel, with the exception of the staff at Hailsham—they live lives notable for their fundamentally “human” qualities. That is, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy must learn to live with one another, cope with romantic failures and excitements, and confront the realities of their own deaths. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy and the other clones are remarkably passive regarding acceptance of their fates—that they must donate their organs and then “complete.”

At first, Ishiguro appears to play with the reader’s expectations about this gruesome form of social donation: he reveals information about the donations slowly, and clearly intends for the impersonality of this system to shock. But, as the novel goes on, Ishiguro makes a more masterful and exciting point—that, in fact, the shock we feel at the definitiveness of the clones’ fate, and their willingness to go along with it, ought to cause us to think about our own lives, the constraints we accept in them, and the inevitability of our own demise. This “second shock,” then, shows us that perhaps our own fates are not so different from the clones’. Although we have a greater variety of choices in our lives, we also must die, and as we approach death, we have about as much choice as do the clones; whether we “accept” our deaths or not, we will eventually die.

What is most shocking, too, is the willingness of “normal” members of English society to hold the clones at arm’s length. Although the reader begins to recognize that Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are just like us, the novel’s “normal humans” insist on dismantling institutions like Hailsham, and the notion of “postponements” and other human facets of clone life are revealed to be baseless rumors. Much of Kathy’s adult life has been a lonely one, driving around the country’s highways and checking in on the donors for whom she cares. The irony here, then, is complex. Kathy’s loneliness is not so dissimilar from the loneliness of any normal human professional. But because UK society has decided the clones are fundamentally different from them, they tightly circumscribe the life-possibilities of the clones. At the same time, however, the reader sees, in the clones’ transition from student to carer to donor, similar emotions to “normal” growing up, normal romantic life, normal professional development.

The reader, in this way, feels fully prepared to acknowledge the humanity of the main characters, even as society of the novel pushes them to the margins. Kathy is nevertheless able to salvage, from this, a life of genuine human connections and experiences. Although she owns little and has no family, she does have her deep and abiding friendships with Tommy and Ruth, which give her great comfort, even as she approaches her time as a donor.

Life, Death, and Humanity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Life, Death, and Humanity appears in each chapter of Never Let Me Go. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Life, Death, and Humanity Quotes in Never Let Me Go

Below you will find the important quotes in Never Let Me Go related to the theme of Life, Death, and Humanity.
Chapter 3 Quotes

If she doesn’t like us, why does she want our work? Why doesn’t she just leave us alone? Who asks her to come here anyway?

Related Characters: Laura (speaker), Madame
Related Symbols: Hailsham
Page Number: 35-36
Explanation and Analysis:

Laura, a minor character in the story and one of Kathy's friends, approaches the Madame to ask about the Gallery. What surprises Laura—and Kathy, Ruth, and the others—is the utter "repulsion" they see on the Madame's face. Laura and the others have always had a sense that they are marked, or "other"—that they are students in a "special" school. But they do not quite understand what makes them special, even if they are told from an early age that they are clones, and that they will donate their organs to others. 

The episode with the Madame thus makes clear for the first time that non-clones are deeply afraid of the clone students, even as they run their lives with precision and a degree of humanity, treating them to a boarding-school-like environment. Laura, Kathy, and Ruth feel like humans—they think, they emote, they wonder about their futures. Indeed, they are human, but the prejudice of non-clones against them keeps them separate and dehumanized, with no chance to change their own fates.


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Chapter 6 Quotes

It’s not good that I smoked. It wasn’t good for me so I stopped it. But what you must understand is that for you, all of you, it’s much, much worse to smoke than it ever was for me. You’ve been told about it. You’re students. You’re . . . special.

Related Characters: Miss Lucy (speaker), Kathy H. , Ruth, Tommy
Related Symbols: Hailsham
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

Miss Lucy clearly wants to speak as forthrightly as possible to the students of Hailsham. She does not want to sugarcoat their futures. But Miss Lucy also most operate within the institutional structures of Hailsham—she cannot just yell out to the students, at least not at this point, what their violent fate must be. 

This passage is an example of Lucy splitting the difference, doing her best to be honest to the students without jeopardizing her own position within the Hailsham structure. Smoking is not permitted for any of the Hailsham students because their health is paramount—it is, in fact, their primary contribution to society. Their organs must be as "pristine" as possible, which is why, before they even reach early middle age, the students begin donating to others who might need them. Lucy thus does not disrupt the established order of Hailsham—she is still invested in making sure the students don't smoke. But she hopes to explain the policy in more detail as a way of relating more directly and honestly to the student population, whom she clearly cares about. 

I froze in shock. Then within a second or two, I began to feel a new kind of alarm, because I could see there was something strange about the situation. The door was almost half open . . . but Madame hadn’t nearly come up to the threshold. She was out in the corridor, standing very still . . . . And the odd thing was she was crying. It might even have been one of her sobs that had come through the song to jerk me out of me dream.

Related Characters: Kathy H. (speaker), Madame
Related Symbols: The Judy Bridgewater Tape, The Judy Bridgewater Tape, Hailsham
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the most important passages in the novel. Kathy believes that the song "Never Let Me Go" is about a mother who does not wish to "let go" of her child, and by dancing to herself in her room, miming this song, Kathy is participating in a fantasy of motherly love. Kathy, like some other Hailsham students, expresses a dim and abstract desire to have a family. She wonders what it would be like to care for someone in that way, to maintain that form of "normal" human connection she has witnessed in representations (film and book) of life outside the school's gates. 

What Kathy does not quite realize, however, is what Madame knows all too well: Kathy can never have a family. She is condemned to a life in which she must "care" for others by giving of herself in the most serious and sustained way. Kathy's donation of organs is a kind of selflessness beyond anything conceivable for a non-clone. And though the reader is slowly putting together the nature of Kathy's sacrifice, it is Madame's teary understanding of Kathy's humanity, in this scene, that sets the stage for further revelations later on in the novel. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

The problem, as I see it, is that you’ve been told and not told. You’ve been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way. But I’m not. If you’re going to have decent lives, then you’ve got to know and know properly. . . . Your lives are set out for you. You’ll become adults . . . and before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll start to donate your vital organs. That’s what each of you was created to do.

Related Characters: Miss Lucy (speaker), Kathy H. , Ruth, Tommy
Related Symbols: Hailsham
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

This is another very important passage in the novel, and a scene in which Miss Lucy's relationship to the students changes somewhat. Before, Lucy has been content in maintaining Hailsham policy while also engaging with the students more directly and openly, telling them that they are special, that their lives will be determined by rules that don't necessarily apply for non-clones. Lucy has not, till this point, used the term "clone," but she nevertheless feels that the "special" status of Hailsham students must be addressed and explained to them.

What changes in this section is the directness with which Lucy addresses the students. She has overhead some of them discussing possible careers they might like to entertain in later life, and some of them, just before Lucy begins to speak, have said they would like to be actors. This, for Lucy, is simply too much, and she has to speak. She notes that any career other than organ donation, or caring for other donors, is utterly impossible for Hailsham students. Here the reader learns just how serious and unchangeable the fate of Hailshamites is—they have no choice regarding their future, and their lives are wholly predetermined. 

Chapter 11 Quotes

You were different. I remember. You were never embarrassed about your collection and you kept it. I wish now I’d done that too.

Related Characters: Ruth (speaker), Kathy H.
Related Symbols: Hailsham
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a moment that occurs before Ruth's comment about Kathy's sex life at the Cottages, but that Kathy relates to the reader only after the other conversation. Ruth, because of her desire to seem mature, gets rid of her "collection" of gifts and other objects from Hailsham. She does not want to be tethered to memories of that place, the way that Kathy and perhaps Tommy do. Ruth looks only forward, into a future where she wonders whether she can't escape the life prescribed to her as a donor.

This passage also sheds light on Kathy's relationship to her own past and future. Kathy loves Hailsham—she thinks of it fondly, and when Hailsham closes later in the novel, Kathy mourns its loss even though she knows she can never go back there. Hailsham represents a time of companionship and learning—even though her "preparation" was to be a clone donor, and not for any other worldly future. But Kathy also has a sense of her own future that is in line with the one prepared for her at Hailsham. Kathy wants to be a caretaker—she looks forward to helping other people. 

Chapter 12 Quotes

The point about Chrissie—and this applied to a lot of the veterans—was that for all her slightly patronizing manner towards us when we’d first arrived, she was awestruck about our being from Hailsham. It took me a long time to realize this.

Related Characters: Kathy H. (speaker), Chrissie
Related Symbols: Hailsham
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

Kathy informs the reader that the "Hailsham" name carries a great deal of weight, especially among those who were not educated there. It has a pedigree—it is a school unlike other academies where donors are prepared for their jobs. 

Kathy does not tell the reader how she was selected for Hailsham, or how that process works—which donors are assigned to which schools as young children. But she does convey just how special Hailsham is to her. What one learns in this passage, then, is that others feel the Hailsham "mystique" as strongly as Kathy herself does.

Later in the novel, however, Hailsham will be revealed to be just one method of socializing young donors—and it gains its "pedigree" because of how comfortable and progressive it is compared to other clone schools. Other methods are not so developed, and many are even quite barbaric. Instead of resembling prep schools, other donor academies are more like prisons or barracks, where donors are fed and housed but not enriched culturally. 

Chapter 14 Quotes

We all know it. We’re modeled from trash. Junkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps. Convicts, maybe, just so long as they aren’t psychos. That’s what we come from. We all know it, so why don’t we say it?

Related Characters: Ruth (speaker), Kathy H. , Tommy , Chrissie
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

Up till this point, Ruth has spoken to others as though she were not constrained by the cultural expectations of donors. For example, Ruth has made it seem that she might be able to work in an office, like her "possible." She has also asked some of the other couples at the Cottages whether it is in fact possible for donor couples who are in love to ask for a deferral of their donation duties, so that they might have more time together. All these utterances combined make it seem that Ruth really believes she has a life outside the predetermined course for all donors.

Here, however, Ruth blurts out what she really thinks. Ruth is aware not only that her clone life is unchangeable, but she knows, too, that she and the others are probably cloned from "undesirable" personages in society—that clones are at the absolute bottom of the social ladder, that they are used only to make sure that other, "normal" people can live. Ruth is devastated by this information, which is why she goes to such great lengths to make it seem that she is not concerned with it at all. 

Chapter 18 Quotes

It was that exchange, when we finally mentioned the closing of Hailsham, that suddenly brought us close again, and we hugged, quite spontaneously, not so much to comfort one another, but as a way of affirming Hailsham, the fact that it was still there in both of our memories.

Related Characters: Kathy H. (speaker), Laura
Related Symbols: Hailsham
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

Laura and Kathy, unlike Ruth, are attracted to Hailsham as a place and as an idea. For them Hailsham has been a source of real comfort. It was one of the highlights of Kathy's life—a time when she was surrounded by good friends and genuine companionship. Kathy takes great pains to point out to the reader that, after Hailsham, life for donors becomes increasingly isolated, until the donor has only one meaningful relationship remaining—that of the donor and the caretaker, who will also become a donor in due time.

Laura and Kathy therefore reconnect because they are happy to see each other. But, more importantly, they are happy to remind each other of a time they both shared, a time when they were embedded in a meaningful and sustained community. This is exactly what each of them, and many of the others donors, have been lacking since leaving Hailsham several years before. 

Chapter 19 Quotes

I’d like you to forgive me, but I don’t expect you to. Anyway, that’s not the half of it, not even a small bit of it, actually. The main thing is, I kept you and Tommy apart. That was the worst thing I did. . . . What I want is for you to put it right. Put right what I messed up for you.

Related Characters: Ruth (speaker), Kathy H. , Tommy
Page Number: 232
Explanation and Analysis:

This outburst of Ruth's, which is designed as an apology to Kathy and to Tommy, is very similar to Ruth's outburst of several years before, when Ruth argues that they all know they are cloned from "undesirable" personages in society. In this case, Ruth again wishes to clear her conscience of something that has been weighing on her for some time, and that she has been trying to keep repressed or secret.

The primary difference, however, has to do with Ruth's relationship to other people. In her first outburst, Ruth argued against the existence of her own "possible" because she was so exasperated by her own lack of opportunity in the world. Her outburst was thus not so much directed toward others but toward her own despair. In this latter instance, however, Ruth realizes that her behaviors of the past have influenced the possibility of a relationship between Kathy and Tommy. Ruth wishes, in this case, to atone for something she has done wrong—to make it right while Kathy and Tommy are still alive and able to spend time together. 

Chapter 21 Quotes

Poor creatures. What did we do to you? With all our schemes and plans?

Related Characters: Madame (speaker), Kathy H. , Tommy
Related Symbols: Hailsham
Page Number: 254
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Madame wonders aloud whether Hailsham was, after all, a good thing. The initial idea of Hailsham, as she goes on to explain, was to help clones to feel like members of society‚to make sure they had hobbies, friends, and fond memories—before becoming donors and caretakers. The idea undergirding the Hailsham system was thus a fundamentally humanist and benevolent one, even if the reality that that system supported was inhumane.

But as the Madame and Miss Emily go on to explain, the Hailsham system was something like a Band-Aid over a disturbed and upsetting system, wherein humans were used and "mined" to keep others alive. The enrichment that Hailsham therefore afforded the young donors came to seem, to many, like an ever-greater cruelty. Because, of course, neither Tommy nor Kathy could actually live the kind of "normal" life that was, in some sense, modeled for them at Hailsham. The Madame therefore reveals the ambivalence built into the institution of Hailsham: a desire to ready clones for their jobs without necessarily explaining directly what those jobs would be—to build up their hopes and dreams and then crush them.

Chapter 22 Quotes

I was thinking about back then, at Hailsham, when you used to go bonkers like that, and we couldn’t understand it. We couldn’t understand how you could ever get like that. . . . I was thinking maybe the reason you used to get like that was because at some level you always knew.
. . . That’s a funny idea. Maybe I did know, somewhere deep down. Something the rest of you didn’t.

Related Characters: Kathy H. (speaker), Tommy (speaker)
Related Symbols: Hailsham
Page Number: 275
Explanation and Analysis:

Kathy realizes at the end of the text just how deep and intuitive Tommy's sense of himself has always been. Tommy has known, and been frustrated by, the total impossibility of a "normal" life for the clones. Tommy knew this, and harbored this frustration, even in his early days at Hailsham, when he used to get angry when others would make fun of him. Tommy saw what was at the end of the road, beyond the Hailsham gates, and he saw this far more clearly than anyone else.

Kathy, too, has sensed that clone life did not really fit in with the mirage of a more normal life that was made apparent to the clones at Hailsham. But Kathy was not so openly angry about this. Instead, Kathy's tone throughout the book has been one of wistfulness, a nostalgia touched with sadness but never completely angry. This feeling of the loveliness of the past, and the fact that the past can never be reclaimed, is something that knits Tommy and Kathy together by the novel's end. 

Chapter 23 Quotes

. . . and if I waited long enough, a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field, and gradually get larger until I’d see it was Tommy, and he’d wave, maybe even call. . . . and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn’t sobbing . . . I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be.

Related Characters: Kathy H. (speaker), Tommy
Related Symbols: Hailsham
Page Number: 288
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the most affecting and beautiful passages in the novel. What becomes painfully clear, by the end, is the depth of Kathy's love for Tommy. Their romance has been, and remains, impossible. Each must die, and before that, each must care for another donor. Their lives cannot be changed. Their love, powerful as it is, cannot alter their circumstances.

But this does not mean that Kathy and Tommy cannot love each other. That is one of the deep and affirming lessons of "Never Let Me Go." Tommy and Kathy remain attached to one another even after Tommy's death, because Kathy tries as hard as she can to remember her friend and lover as he was, to place him in her mind among the beautiful fields of Hailsham. It is a great sadness that this past cannot extend indefinitely into the future. But the past really did happen—it was real. And Kathy insists on this reality until the end of her own life.