Some of the novel’s more poignant moments involve the conflict between characters’ individual goals and the social world governing those characters. The novel’s clones make plans for their futures as though they might be allowed to live their own, fulfilling lives—even as they know, in the back of their minds, that these plans are either impossible or highly improbable. Ruth wants, above all, to have a “normal” office job; only Kathy seems to realize that this idea of an office work-life is derived from an advertisement Ruth has seen, since Ruth has no first-hand experience of finding such a job. Kathy, for her part, worries that her libido is “unnaturally strong,” and that perhaps her “original,” or clone parent, was a part of society’s “lower strata,” and therefore passed along to Kathy a host of sexual urges and desires.
The novel’s stark, underlying reality, however, is that the students at Hailsham have no future—their lives are utterly predetermined, and there is nothing they can “choose,” in terms of personal life or career, once they leave for the Cottages. The only allowable jobs are carer, followed by donor. That is, neither Kathy nor Tommy nor Ruth is able to change his or her fate—they all become carers and then donors. But Ishiguro seems to contend that, within this rigid framework, the clones can maintain a humanity, a loving outlook towards others, and a modicum of personal freedom. This freedom tends to be symbolized most strongly by the Judy Bridgewater tape of the song “Never Let Me Go,” to which Kathy listens constantly, and which Tommy and Ruth “find” again in Norfolk. Kathy knows that the song stirs in her the kinds of emotions—of love and human attachment to a child—that Kathy can never experience. But it is simply the feeling of wanting these attachments that allows Kathy to feel human and complete, and to live a life that is satisfying to her.
A second, and perhaps more bracing point, relates to all humans, not just to the novel’s clones. Ishiguro implies that, even as “normal” humans make choices about marriage, children, education, and career, our lives have a beginning, middle, and end, and there is nothing we can do to avert our ultimate fate—our death. When Kathy comes to terms with the contours of her life, and her constrained choices, she does so not really as a clone, but as a human being—someone who is aware that her life is small, brief, and filled with uncontrollable obstacles. Yet despite all this, life is more than worth living, and filled with the kinds of joys, large and small, that Kathy discusses in the novel.
Individual Goals vs. Social Expectations ThemeTracker
Individual Goals vs. Social Expectations Quotes in Never Let Me Go
So I reached forward and put a hand on his arm. Afterwards, the others thought he’d meant to do it, but I was pretty sure it was unintentional. His arms were still flailing about, and he wasn’t to know I was about to put out my hand. Anyway, as he threw up his arm, he knocked my hand aside and hit the side of my face.
Well . . . . The thing is, it might sound strange. It did to me at first. What she said was that if I didn’t want to be creative, if I really didn’t feel like it, that was perfectly all right. Nothing wrong with it, she said.
The gallery Tommy and I were discussing was something we’d all of us grown up with. Everyone talked about it as though it existed, though in truth none of us knew for sure that it did.
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?
I accepted the invisible rein she was holding out, and then we were off, riding up and down the fence, sometimes cantering, sometimes at a gallop. I’d been correct in my decision to tell Ruth I didn’t have any horses of my own, because after a while with Bramble, she let me try her various other horses one by one, shouting all sorts of instructions about how to handle each animal’s foibles.
When it came down to it, though, I don’t recall our taking many practical steps towards defending Miss Geraldine; our activities always revolved around gathering more and more evidence concerning the plot itself.
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.
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.
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.
And you didn’t want to do it in the fields even when it was warm enough, because you’d almost certainly discover afterwards you’d had an audience watching from the house passing round binoculars. In other words, for all the talk of sex being beautiful, we had the distinct impression we’d be in trouble if the guardians caught us at it.
Don’t you realize, we won’t be here together like this much longer?
I do realize that, Kath. That’s exactly why I can’t rush back into it with Ruth. We’ve got to think about the next move really carefully . . . . Like you say, Kath. We’re going to be leaving here soon. It’s not like a game any more. We’ve got to think carefully.
For the first weeks after we arrived, she [Ruth] made a big deal of it, always putting her arm around Tommy . . . it wasn’t long before Ruth realized the way she’d been carrying on with Tommy was all wrong for the Cottages, and she set about changing how they did things in front of people.
Come to think of it, I suppose you haven’t been that slow making friends with at least some of the veterans.
You were different. I remember. You were never embarrassed about your collection and you kept it. I wish now I’d done that too.
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.
You know, Ruth, we might be coming here in a few years’ time to visit you. Working in a nice office. I don’t see how anyone could stop us visiting you then.
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?
Well . . . I really wanted to find it [the cassette tape] for you. And when it looked in the end like it wasn’t going to turn up, I just said to myself, one day I’ll go to Norfolk, and I’ll find it there for her.
The lost corner of England! And here we are!
God, Tommy, these must take so much concentration. I’m surprised you can see well enough in here to do all this tiny stuff. I wonder what Madame would say if she saw these.
I suppose I’ll have to get a lot better before she gets to see any of it.
Well, Kathy, what you have to realize is that Tommy doesn’t see you like that. He really, really likes you, he thinks you’re really great. But I know he doesn’t see you like, you know, a proper girlfriend. Besides, you know how Tommy is. He can be fussy . . . . Tommy doesn’t like girls who’ve been with . . . well, you know, with this person and that.
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.
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.
Poor creatures. What did we do to you? With all our schemes and plans?
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.
. . . 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.