Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Oh Tommy, you troubled boy. Where do we begin? For starters, Tommy is the lone guy in our trio of protagonists. Right from the get-go, we know this dude is unique. Sometimes being unique means he's a bit of a loner. (Throwing tantrums at age thirteen isn't really the best way to make friends.) But eventually he becomes friends with Kathy and later starts dating Ruth.
By the end of the novel, when he's dating Kathy, being unique isn't quite so bad as it used to be. All in all, Tommy ends up better than where he started. Except for that whole organ donation thing, of course.
The Outcast: Fitting In is Hard to Do
Tommy spends a lot of time in the novel as the butt of others' jokes. At Hailsham, he gets teased for everything from a childish drawing of an elephant to hurting his elbow. Once he's grown up and out of his tantrum-throwing stages, Ruth likes to tease Tommy in front of the veterans at the Cottages. Even Kathy sometimes calls Tommy names. The guy just can't catch a break.
Ruth makes Tommy's social standing perfectly clear during their road trip to Norfolk. By this time, Tommy has become a pretty chill guy who lots of people like. Despite his newfound chums and the fact that, oh yeah, he's her boyfriend, Ruth still makes Tommy out to be an outcast:
"What you've got to realise," she said to Chrissie, "is that even though Tommy was at Hailsham, he isn't like a real Hailsham student. He was left out of everything and people were always laughing at him." (13.58)
Ouch, Ruth. Check out how she makes Tommy sound different from everyone else at Hailsham. It's bad enough that she brings up how much he was teased, but calling him a fake Hailsham student is just putting salt on the wound. This makes it sound like Tommy's experiences at Hailsham weren't as legit as everyone else's, which calls into question basically everything about him, since Hailsham is so key in these folks' senses of self. Ruth's teasing threatens to strip Tommy of part of his identity, and that just isn't cool.
But there's one part of the novel where Tommy finally does catch a break: when he becomes a donor. Does it really take having your vital organs removed to make the teasing stop? Apparently for Tommy, it does. When he's older and reunites with Ruth and Kathy, he's no longer the social pariah he once was. Actually, he's super social with the other donors and has lots of friends. Plus, he's a good pal to Ruth when they go to see the boat, and he's a good boyfriend to Kathy when they start dating. Looks like things have gotten better for our dear Tommy.
Tommy's Terrible Tantrums: Fighting the Good Fight, But Losing in the End
Tommy knows how to throw a good tantrum. He can fling his arms and shout at the top of his lungs with the best teething toddlers around. But Tommy isn't a toddler when he's having these tantrums. Actually, he's around thirteen when they start which makes his foot-stomping and arm-flinging all the more troubling.
Tommy's tantrums tell us a lot about what he's feeling inside. Because Kathy is telling this whole story, we don't get very much information from his perspective. Sometimes we're left wondering: what's Tommy thinking and feeling? So we have to do some sleuth work. And we've found that one of the keys to unlocking Tommy's emotions is paying attention to the tantrums themselves. Anytime Tommy gets upset, we get to see how his inner emotions express themselves on the outside.
Let's take a peek at the biggest tantrum in the book. It also happens to be the last tantrum. Yep, we're thinking of the tantrum Tommy throws in the cow field after he and Kathy have learned that there are no deferrals:
The moon wasn't quite full, but it was bright enough, and I could make out in the mid-distance, near where the field began to fall away, Tommy's figure, raging, shouting, flinging his fists and kicking out.
I tried to run to him, but the mud sucked my feet down. The mud was impeding him too, because one time, when he kicked out, he slipped and fell out of view into the blackness. But his jumbled swear-words continued uninterrupted, and I was able to reach him just as he was getting to his feet again. 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. (22.94-95)
We don't get to hear any of the specific words Tommy is saying. But his body movements tell us a lot about what's going on inside that head of his. He's so angry and upset that even slipping and falling in the mud doesn't stop his screaming and flailing. What do you think about how Tommy tried to "shake" Kathy off? Seems to us like he's not quite ready to submit to his fate just yet. Maybe he's even showing us his rebellious side here. He sure does put up a fight, at least for a little while. It's just not a very effective one.
So why does Tommy throw his tantrums? Of course, there are many possible answers. Try this one on for size: Kathy thinks it's because "on some level [he] always knew" about their depressing fate (22.105), and he must have known there was very little they could do about it. What do you think? Do you agree with Kathy that Tommy's tantrums are actually a sign he knew more than the rest of them? What else might these tantrums tell us about Tommy?Tommy's Timeline