Self-Repression and Dystopia: The Bumpy Road to Freedom in “Never Let Me Go”
“Tommy sighed, ‘I know,’ he said. ‘Well, I suppose we’ve got time. None of us are in any particular hurry’ ” (178). None of us are in any particular hurry. I remember snapping my book shut in frustration. How can these human beings remain so sedated, sluggish, and annoyingly indifferent in the face of eminent death? In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Kathy H’s reflections upon the empathic thoughts and experiences of the clones leave no doubt of their humanity, but also reveal the disturbing absence of arguably our most “human” ideal: a lust for freedom. Through self-propagated actions and mindsets, Kathy and by extension the clones in general ensnare themselves within the same dystopian society that marginalizes them.
Although being a proficient carer may seem to soothe and benefit her fellow clones, Kathy’s “caring” actually upholds and strengthens the inequalities of the dystopian society. This becomes clear upon revisiting Kathy’s introduction at the beginning of the novel. Speaking about her donors, Kathy is proud that “hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated,’ even before fourth donation” (3). Within the context of the excerpt, “agitation” is the donors’ frustration toward the unfair sacrifice of their life just to prolong another. These feelings are the precious roots of unrest and revolution; every instance of organized resistance against an overbearing state has its origins, in some way or another, within a form of “agitation.” While becoming a carer is mandatory, the extent to which they encourage passivity is based on their own judgement, demonstrated by the state’s lack of interference or control on the caring process. The clones’ work maintains the donation program by maximizing profit for the state with nearly free labor, while utilizing relatability to the donor to ease tension and prevent rebellion. Therefore, examining the role of a carer within the wider context of the clone population, aspiring to be a “good carer” by calming potential revolution is actually extremely harmful, upholding the structure of the dystopia (282).
The suppression of unrest by the process of caring breeds passivity not only in their donors, but also within the carers themselves. Kathy continues by reflecting on her personal attachment to her position: “Okay, maybe I am boasting now. But it means a lot to me, being able to do my work well, especially the bit about my donors staying ‘calm’ ” (3). Besides dampening the flames of resistance with her adamant focus on keeping donors “calm,” Kathy’s commitment to pleasing her higher-ups also has effects, albeit subconsciously, on her own ability to rebel. Kathy is clearly consumed by excelling at her job, evidenced by her admittance to boasting, something we never see the humble, soft-spoken narrator actually do throughout the rest of the novel. Therefore, it would be illogical for Kathy to weaken her commitment to caring with dreams of resistance, given how pivotal the position is to her identity: she introduces herself with “I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years” (3). People typically introduce themselves with information they believe is most important to their identity. Additionally, the pursuit of success as a carer enforces self-compliance by making it nearly impossible to work toward anything else; Kathy constantly exhausts themselves physically and mentally with persistent travel and donor tending: “All this rushing about you do. I’ve been watching you. It’s wearing you out” (282). A fair extrapolation of Kathy’s experience and high regard for her job upon the general clone population reveals an ominous, cyclical trap. Because of their shortsighted perception of success, carers prioritize the momentary comfort attained by subduing resistance in themselves and their donors, upholding the structure of the donation program.
While carers enforce passivity on the individual level, the clones’ obsession and strict adherence to a group identity leads to suppressed resistance of the group as a whole. The importance placed on maintaining a collective identity, a belonging with a group, is clearly on display when Kathy encounters a threat to her association with Hailsham. When informed of the school’s closing, Kathy’s immediate response is asking “But what’ll happen to all the students?” (212). She displays a profound concern for “all the students who’d grown up with me and were now spread across the country, carers and donors, all separated now but still somehow linked by the place we’d come from” (212). Although Hailsham’s termination has no direct impact on any of its former students, Kathy is deeply troubled; asking “what’ll happen” implies that the closing makes it impossible for the students to continue their lives as it is. Kathy speaks as if the bond former students share is so crucial that its removal will cause the clones’ core identity to cease to exist. This is because the value of being joined by “the place we’d come from” is far greater for clones than for non-clones; it fills to fill the void of unknown origins that is crucial to human identity. The lack of parents, family, or ancestral ties creates a permanent aura of ambiguity, forcing the clones to cling onto an alternative source of affection and belonging: the group identity provided by Hailsham. The former students create and maintain this social construct to bridge their insecurities and specify an origin, allowing themselves to attain a sense of normality. Imagining the plight of these clones through this perspective forces us to understand why they held on so tightly to Hailsham; they would never risk losing their makeshift family by attempting to rebel.
Having established the clones’ view of the Hailsham group identity as akin to family, the perpetual fear of being isolated from this social construct is clearly too great to consider opposing the donation program. Immediately after being told of her former school’s closing, Kathy recalls her encounter with a clown carrying a bundle of animal-shaped balloons in North Wales. While observing the collection of balloons, Kathy “kept worrying that one of the strings would come unraveled and a single balloon would sail off into that cloudy sky” (213). Kathy’s repeated anxiety, as she “kept worrying,” represents the deep-rooted fear of being separated from her metaphorical group of balloons, or Hailsham group identity. The single balloon represents an individual who severs his or her connection to Hailsham by opposing the group’s social norms, hence becoming a defector. In the clones’ childhood, “coming unraveled” from the group could be found in taboos such as Marge K asking Mrs. Lucy about smoking, or Tommy’s rejection of creativity. These instances were met with communal punishment and exclusion to restore conformity: “we chose to punish her by hauling her out of bed, holding her face against the window pane and ordering her to look up at the woods” (51). In the same light, the ultimate, most incongruous form of defection is resisting the donation process by rebellion. Considering that resisting in this manner is far more radical than any of the other taboos or unspoken rules produced throughout the novel, we can imagine that the following exile from the collective identity would be permanent and devastating. The fate of a theoretical outcast would be terrifyingly bleak as they “sail off into that cloudy sky”; the lack of clarity or vision in a cloudy sky connotes the troubled, isolated, and dark reality of life without association to Hailsham. Therefore, the clones reject the remote possibility of a lonely freedom, opting to spend the remainder of their short lives under the psychological protection of the group identity they created.
In the scene of Tommy’s outburst after visiting Madame and Miss Emily, the two previously discussed forms of self-repression, the caring process and the importance of group identity, are catalysts that drive Kathy’s decision to “calm” Tommy’s rage (3). “I caught a glimpse of his face in the moonlight, caked in mud and distorted with fury, then I reached for his flailing arms and held on tight. He tried to shake me off, but I kept holding on, until he stopped shouting and I felt the fight go out of him (274).” This excerpt is the only case of outward resistance in the novel, but the true importance of the passage lies in Kathy’s treatment of Tommy, and what her actions symbolize. Kathy describing Tommy’s face as “distorted” reveals her perception of rebellion; acting on his frustration transforms Tommy into a twisted anomaly, at risk of becoming separated from his group identity. This image is furthered by his face being “caked in mud,” symbolizing a dirtying of his identity through the negative change in the appearance of his face. This momentary separation from expected compliance parallels how Tommy’s tantrums as a child isolated him from the group of boys on the soccer field. In this sense, Kathy’s actions can be viewed as an attempt to protect Tommy from losing his precious link to Hailsham. Additionally, given how Kathy prides herself on her ability to keep donors calm, her initial reaction to Tommy’s rage is to address it in the same way she tends to her donors’ “agitation,” subduing his resistance by “holding on” (3). The phrase “felt the fight go out of him” is strongly associated with the suppression of an uprising or insurgence, a task Kathy associates with success through her experience as a carer. Therefore, a clear link exists between Kathy’s job position and her desire to extinguish Tommy’s resistance. By analyzing the scene of Tommy’s outburst through the lens of Kathy’s job as a carer and the importance of group identity, we confirm by this specific instance that the clones, to some extent, keep themselves trapped within the donation program.
Consequently, to understand the clones’ lack of resistance, it is more effective to look inward to social constructs and perspectives formed by the clones themselves, rather than to look outward at the seemingly unguarded path to freedom. Ishiguro’s investigation of this concept has extremely relevant applications in the present, showing one of many ways in which Never Let Me Go should be read as a cautionary tale. To what extent does our desire for a group identity shape our ideas and actions? How often do we blindly pursue “success” in the workplace just to please our higher ups, without understanding the repercussions on a larger scale? These questions reveal how issues that seem tucked away in a faraway, fiction English countryside are actually found in my own life, reflected in my perspective of friends, school, and work. I argue that we become frustrated at the clones’ lack of rebellion because we believe our actions would differ in the situation. However, although none of us forcefully donate our organs, many of the same barriers to freedom that the clones construct are actually ones we form as well. Therefore, the clones’ self-repression, through the work of carers and the adherence to group identity, offers powerful insight upon the degree of freedom we truly possess over our own lives.
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