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Reading Never Let Me Go

[Editor’s Note: The issue of human exceptionalism — what it means to be human — comes up at ENV on occasion. With this in mind, Heather Zeiger reviews Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest book and movie (spoilers ahead!).]

I read Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro a couple of months ago, not knowing that the movie would be out in September, so I am looking forward to seeing this film. The plot is a typical coming-of-age story of three young friends…typical, at least, until Part Three of the book. The book reads quickly as the reader is drawn to the main character’s story of love, life, and loss. Ishiguro is an excellent story-teller, traveling seamlessly back-and-forth from the past to the present, revealing tidbits of information along the way. I thought one reviewer aptly described Ishiguro’s writing as being controlled, as he is very deliberate in how he reveals the true nature of the three main characters.

The beauty of this book is in the way it stays with you as after you’ve finished reading it. I am hoping the film does the same. The surface reading is that this is a tragic story of three people who grow up together in a boarding school. They were born to die. They are clones who, during the physical prime of their lives, are to have their organs harvested for donations for real (non-cloned) people. The beauty is in how Ishiguro makes his point about clones and what it means to be human. The reader doesn’t find out until Part Three that the characters are clones and what clones are in this society, although at this point, the reader knows there is something very different about these children. By then, the reader has been relating to three main characters as she would with any other character in a coming-of-age story. The clones’ feelings, experiences, love and devotion are all very human, provoking the question: What does it mean to be human?

In Ishiguro’s world, a clone is not a person. It has human tissue because it is used for organ donation, but it has no value or worth as a person. It is instrumental. Yet as the reader, there is a sense of horror when you realize that they were born to have their organs harvested until they can’t handle the surgeries and die. The most disturbing part is that the characters have known this the whole time. They accept their fate with a disconcerting stoicism that makes one question whether they actually have a human spirit or if they are like any other brainwashed person? The reader grows up with the characters, and in a sense, lives life with them. They seem like any other people, making the question of their personhood ridiculous, until the reader encounters their stoicism towards their fate. They are lacking an aspect of the human spirit: the desire to live, to love, to overcome, that causes the reader to (guiltily, perhaps) question their personhood. Maybe they aren’t persons, or maybe they are just brainwashed persons?

This brings in another theme woven throughout the book: Did the clones really have a life, an identity? Like the biological construction of the characters themselves, their schooling and identities were constructed by other (non-cloned) individuals, who were somewhat sympathetic to the clones.

Because Ishiguro’s other writings cover World War II or post-war Japan and Britain, I would assume that he is interested in the instrumental use of human beings and who or what defines personhood. His novel brings to light important questions on what is human and what limits should we place on treating humans, even cloned humans, as instruments. Even the boarding school itself was an experiment to determine whether the clones displayed any features that would indicate they had a soul.

Ironically, by writing the stories of these clones, Ishiguro has, in a sense, given compelling evidence for some features of a soul. The book used artwork to try to show that the students had a soul. Ishiguro conducted the experiment himself, but with narrative instead of art, and did this in a manner that makes the reader very aware of her role in the story, a technique that is reminiscent of some France’s post-war literature. The reader is evaluating the characters. The “experiment” is in how the reader (as a non-clone) relates the characters as if this were any other coming-of-age story.

In a second post on this subject, I will look at the film version of the book and further discuss the instrumental use of man.