The Significance of Water Imagery in ‘Never Let Me Go’
In Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, one significant recurring image is water. Throughout the book, water imagery surrounds many events, despite having no immediate connection to any of these scenarios. Water imagery occurs in both positive and negative situations, in many different forms, but through the use of the boat as a symbol for freedom, water is shown to be symbolic of organic life and its unpredictability.
Some notable examples of water imagery’s innate positivity occur early in the novel. Kathy and Tommy have a conversation in which a major part of life at Havisham is questioned at a large pond. This conversation could have taken place anywhere, yet the pond is described in great detail. At the time, Kathy also remarks on how odd she finds this, stating that “It wasn’t a good place for a discreet conversation” (Pg. 21), but also notes it had a “a tranquil atmosphere” (Pg. 25). It is important to note that both participants leave the conversation intrigued and enlightened. When Kathy, Tommy and Ruth take a field trip to Norfolk, a place “jutting into the sea” (Pg. 65), they discover a valuable item thought to be lost, and when they see a woman who at first glance appears to be Ruth’s possible they see her at an art gallery with “sea themes” (Pg. 160). When discussing this woman another time, one character is temporarily distracted, “pointing something out…in the sea” (Pg. 162). Later, water imagery is featured again when Tommy tells Ruth that after he scored a goal in soccer, he “always imagined [he] was splashing through water” (Pg. 280), and that “it felt really good” (Pg. 280). Unlike the vagueness of the first two instances, Tommy clearly states how elated he felt when running through the water.
Based on when water imagery surfaces, it seems to represent a virtue related to freedom or happiness. Whilst initially water imagery may seem like a herald of positivity, it is discovered to not be the case. Later, Ruth has a foreboding dream in which Hailsham, the character’s school, is completely flooded, “like a giant lake” (pg. 221). Whilst at first not appearing to be a bad dream, Ruth then states, “it was only like that because it [Hailsham] closed down” (Pg. 221). Hailsham exists only to prove that clones are also human, and its closure would mean there is no hope for Ruth or any of her friends. Negative imagery surrounds this dream, such as “rubbish floating by” (Pg. 219), and the fact that Ruth is “stuck looking out the window” (219) references the theme of inevitability and passivity.
Another example of the negativity that surround water imagery occurs just after the characters learn that there is no such thing as a ‘deferral’, an extra 3-4 years of life for those who could prove they were in love. Tommy recounts a vision he has of himself and Kathy “hold[ing] on to each other… as hard as they can” (Pg., 276) whilst in a river with “the water moving really fast”. (Pg. 276) Despite their attempts, “the current is too strong” (Pg. 276) and “they’ve got to let go, drift apart” (Pg. 276). In this example, the river’s negative impact is made more explicit. This contradicts the positive connotations water imagery has previously attained, and with further inquiry we can see that many examples of water imagery are neither entirely good or bad. One example, Ruth’s Hailsham dream, which contains an abundance of negative imagery, also has positive aspects. “It was nice and tranquil…I knew I wasn’t in any danger” (Pg. 277). The inverse is also true: even in positive moments such as Kathy and Tommy’s pond meeting, they are brought to terms with the sobering detail that they will never truly live a free life.
It has become apparent that the presence of water does not always signal an explicitly positive or negative event. Water imagery does not represent one distinct value, it symbolizes a mixture of both. As much can be inferred from the absence of water as can be from the presence of it. Near the end of the book, the characters go on a journey to find a boat, which they discover “beached in the marshes” (Pg. 220), without water. Boats usually represent freedom and adventure, but this boat is unable to go anywhere. This again references the theme of passivity and inevitability. In this instance, the boat represents the character’s freedom: they have free will but have resigned themselves to their fate and their freedom is effectively useless. Because this object is noticeably out of place, “stranded” (Pg. 212) on dry land, and naturally should be with water, water must symbolize something the characters do not possess.
Water symbolizes the ups and downs of unbridled organic life, hence why the boat is stranded without water. You cannot have freedom without a life to apply it to. Although the clones technically possess free will, they are unable to utilize it, and have no control over their ultimate fate. Water is both literally and metaphorically, fluid. It occurs with the negative parts of life, as well as the positive, and the parts that fall in between, just as natural life does. Often the water is manipulated by the characters, but just as often it manipulates them, such as in Tommy’s river vision. It possesses one constant aspect: it always appears when the characters are experiencing extreme emotion such as when Ruth remarks on the “really beautiful” (Pg. 220) boat, or when Tommy becomes “distorted with fury” (Pg. 276) after talking with Madame by the sea. Water does not symbolize one inherently good or bad aspect, it symbolizes life itself and the subsequent peaks and dips.
At first, water imagery in Never Let Me Go seems coincidental, contradictory and confusing. However, ultimately, the use of the boat as a symbol for freedom reveals that water imagery is representative of life itself, adds a more profound meaning to the novel, and ties in to the themes of passivity and humanity explored. The use of water imagery in Never Let Me Go symbolizes the central idea of humanity.
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