Art and One’s Identity Construction
In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, art is viewed as the extension of one’s soul. Through painting, writing, or any other art form, Hailsham students are able to surpass their identities of clones and express their true selves. The art that students make or find appealing is a reflection of not only their souls, but also their feelings. Most of the world views these students as soulless creatures that are incapable of human emotion; however, the guardians at Hailsham believe that when the students are “reared in humane, cultivated environments, [it is] possible for them to grow up as sensitive […] as any ordinary human being” (261). Thus, the guardians encourage their students to create their own art and be moved by that of others, in order to prove their capacity for experiencing a wide range of human sentiment.
However, what is most important in the novel is not that the world acknowledges the souls of these students, but that the reader does. For the reader to truly comprehend the novel’s motifs of what it means to exist, he or she must view Kathy, the novel’s protagonist, and all other clones as “real” people. Rather than simply telling the reader that the students are regular people, Ishiguro vividly demonstrates the feelings that art elicits from the students.
Kathy, the novel’s protagonist, is extremely moved by the song Never Let Me Go on her Judy Bridgewater cassette tape. Her fondness for the tape extends past the song itself, and into the emotions that the tape provokes and the life experiences it unexpectedly relates to. The tape triggers Kathy to feel a longing for intimacy and a desire for ownership; these human feelings cause the reader to view Kathy and other students as “real” people, ultimately allowing the reader to understand the role of existence within the novel. When listening to or thinking of her Judy Bridgewater tape, Kathy longs for intimacy. Being emotionally moved by music is an archetypal human quality, as humans are perhaps the only creatures on the planet that connect aspirations to music.
Kathy arbitrarily bought her tape at a Sale as a young child at Hailsham. At the time, she did not know how much the tape, and especially track number three, “Never Let Me Go,” would emotionally impact her. The first time Kathy tells the reader about her tape, though unable to outright explain why, she says, “it really got to me” (70). What she did not realize at the time was that the track moved emotions that she unaware of having. At Hailsham the guardians “timed [everything they told the students] very carefully and deliberately so that [they] were always too young to understand properly the latest piece of information [but…they took] it in at some level” (82). As a result, at age eleven, Kathy, though not fully cognizant of her identity as a donor, had a vague clue of what her life would be like. When Kathy listens to track number three, a song supposedly about romance, she holds a pillow tight and dances with it. As she performs this action, she imagines that she is “a woman who’d be told she couldn’t have babies, who really, really wanted them all her life [and then] a miracle [occurs] and she has a baby” (70). Though at this age Kathy had never been forthrightly told that she could not have babies, the song triggers a longing for a relationship between mother and child that she does not yet consciously know she will be denied. Kathy creates her own interpretation of these song lyrics in order to have an outlet for her desire to feel the intimacy of familial bonds. The yearning Kathy feels to procreate is an extremely human emotion; thus, the feelings the tape inspires in Kathy aid the reader in viewing Kathy as a person rather than as a creature.
Additionally, simply owning the tape inspires Kathy with a desire for ownership. Life at Hailsham, or as an eventual donor in general, is full of conformity and the loss of individualism. The students have little choice in how they spend their time or in what they wear. Kathy’s tape is old, and not commonly known of among the students. The tape’s scandalous cover depicts Judy Bridgewater with her “elbows up on the bar [with] a cigarette burning in her hand”; these activities, though taboo restrictions in her own life, provide Kathy with a glimpse into a life of choice (67). Kathy and the other Hailsham students have grown up being, “told and not told” of their ultimate purpose in life (82). Through slowly obtaining information about their future from a young age, they come to find it harder and harder to rebel against or question the emplaced system. The choice to stray away from the life of a donor is unthinkable to Kathy, but still she recognizes that some form of choice is missing. It has been programmed into Kathy’s mind that her body and her life decisions are not her own.
Naturally, Kathy desires the ownership that Judy Bridgewater exhibits in her own life; she sees Judy’s cover and hears Judy’s lyrics and wishes she could control her life in the way that Judy is able to. Kathy is only able to make a few trivial decisions in her life: one of these is her choice to value her tape and have it be the one thing in her life that is truly hers. Similarly, animals do not have much choice in their lives, as they tend to follow their species’ natural paths. The tape provokes Kathy’s aspiration to make her own decisions and be in charge of her life; thus, she ultimately becomes more understandable and sympathetic to the reader. Kathy’s Judy Bridgewater cassette tape proves to the reader that she is as capable of human emotion as the reader himself or herself. After all, the tape elicits desire for standard human hopes such as intimacy and self-ownership.
Once one views Kathy as a regular person, it is easier to apply the novel’s meaning to oneself, rather than simply seeing Kathy as a fictional clone character. The novel’s last two words sum up its entire purpose: “to be” (288). Ishiguro uses Kathy to cause the reader to think about his or her own existence. Through drawing out relatable human desires, Kathy’s cassette tape aids the reader in absorbing Ishiguro’s thoughts on existence by making Kathy more relatable, more human despite her place in a darkly fictional narrative.
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