Study Guide

Never Let Me Go Analysis

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The phrase "Never Let Me Go" comes from Kathy's favorite Judy Bridgewater song. In the chorus to the song, Judy sings the line "Baby, baby, never let me go" (6.46). Whether this line is about a newborn baby (which is what Kathy thinks) or about a lover (probably what Judy Bridgewater thinks), it's definitely about keeping someone or something close, even in the face of great odds. It's all about, you know, not letting go. We might even go so far as to say that this title is a little clingy.

    So right off the bat we know that some kind of intimacy is going to be important in the book. But who or what do you think this title refers to? In typical Never Let Me Go fashion, there's not just one easy answer. Could the title refer to Kathy holding her pillow-baby? Or is it about holding onto the past? Or maybe it's about close friendships? Might as well hang onto—and never let go of—all the possibilities as you read the novel.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The biggest conundrum of this book may be what on earth happens in the ending. Actually, let's rephrase that: why doesn't anything happen in the ending?

    If you read this book and were waiting for the moment when Kathy, Tommy, Ruth, and the rest of the clones staged an uprising and join the Clone Liberation Army, then we're with you. Free the clones! Or even if they weren't going to revolt against the system, couldn't Kathy and her friends have just driven away? There don't seem to be any actual gates stopping them (check out the "Freedom and Confinement" theme for more on this subject), so what's wrong with a one-way ticket to Mexico?

    But in the end, Kathy and her friends do nothing of the sort. In fact, they do nothing at all. Instead, they submit to their depressing fate (and both they and we know that this fate isn't a pretty one): donating organs and completing. They don't even consider fighting the system or running away. Kathy says it best with the final line of the book: "I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be" (23.49).

    So why doesn't Kathy fight back? Why doesn't she drive away and declare herself free? (Head over to the "Passivity" theme and see if you can figure out why the characters are so submissive.) What is your reaction to Kathy's submission?

  • Setting

    England, late 1990s

    Never Let Me Go gives us three main institutional settings: Hailsham, the Cottages, and the donor recovery centers. Though Kathy spends most of her time in these three locations, the girl can drive a car, so sometimes she gets to go exploring. Well, maybe exploring is taking it a bit too far, but she does get to drive through various English towns and fields. Let's take a closer look.

    Hailsham

    Kathy and her friends spend the first sixteen years of their lives at Hailsham. From what Kathy tells us, the digs sound pretty sweet, even if there are some creepy elements. The real estate listing for Hailsham might sound something like this:

    This spacious house contains plenty of classrooms and dorm huts for all your schooling needs. It boasts a large sports pavilion perfect for spying on boys playing in neighboring fields. The ample grounds are surrounded by a fence that is not electrified (but which no one crosses anyways) and creepy woods (where no one goes because they fear they may get dismembered). Entirely secluded from the outside world, this real estate gem is perfect for hiding clones that you want to pretend don't exist. But beware: if you ever leave, you will never ever be able to find Hailsham again. 

    Seriously—how weird is it that Kathy can't find the place she grew up? We know she had geography lessons at Hailsham, but apparently they forgot to mention the school's address. Or even what town it's in. This means Kathy sees reminders of her home everywhere, but can't actually track the place down: "Driving around the country now, I still see things that will remind me of Hailsham. I might pass the corner of a misty field, or see part of a large house in the distance as I come down the side of a valley, even a particular arrangement of poplar trees up on a hillside […] Then I see it's impossible and I go on driving, my thoughts drifting on elsewhere" (1.8). Hailsham sure is a hidden gem—emphasis on the hidden.

    The Cottages

    In comparison with Hailsham, the Cottages aren't looking so hot. When Kathy and her friends move from Hailsham to this new home, it's a definite downgrade. We're not going to lie, the real estate listing for the Cottages would be a hard sell:

    These converted farmhouses require some TLC. The buildings are run-down and the rooms are damp. But there's a charming churchyard nearby perfect for reading outdoors or getting in squabbles with your friends. The heat doesn't work, so residents will need to sleep under extra blankets, carpets, and coats in order to avoid freezing during the winter. Enjoy!

    The thing is, Kathy and her friends really do enjoy their time at the Cottages, even without central heating. To Kathy, she may need to wear layers of clothing even in the summer, but as she tells it: "none of us minded the discomforts one bit—it was all part of the excitement of being at the Cottages" (10.7). We're thinking the Cottages sound kind of like camping: you might be cold and itchy, but you're still having a grand time.

    And they stand in sharp contrast to perfect, neat Hailsham. Sure, they're shabby—but they're a lot less mysterious. Things are more out in the open here, and the clones are given the chance to explore their inner lives.

    Donor Recovery Centers

    The final stop for each of the donors is a recovery center. These are the buildings where Kathy and her friends undergo operations to remove their vital organs, and where they recuperate between donations. They are also the places where the donors "complete." We're thinking that a brochure for a center where clones go to die might need to sugar-coat things a bit:

    When it's time for you to do your duty to society and donate your vital organs, come join us at a recovery center where you can recuperate in style. Here you'll find a range of amenities to meet your needs between giving away vital organs. Some recovery centers, like the one in Dover, are clean and warm. Some of the others, like Kingsfield, are older and shabbier, but can still be homey with the right carer looking after all your recovery needs. 

    Also, what do you make of this term "recovery center"? We're thinking that it's a bit of a euphemism. In fact you, might even call it propaganda to make the centers sound more positive. The truth is that the donors recover just to be cut up again and donate more organs. And eventually they don't recover at all. But whoever gave these centers their name was a marketing genius. "Recovery center" sure does sound less ominous than "completion center" or "place where you give away organs and die."

    Norfolk and the English Countryside

    Kathy spends a lot of time driving around England, especially when she is working as a carer. (Hop on over to "Symbols" to read more about driving in the novel. We'll wait for you to zoom on back.) She visits Norfolk at least twice (when she finds the tape, and after Tommy has completed), and she journeys through a bunch of other towns as well. Kathy finds the English countryside and the seaside towns to be super relaxing and good places to reminisce.

    In fact, getting to drive through these scenic areas seems to be her favorite part of being a carer: "I do like the feeling of getting into my little car, knowing for the next couple of hours I'll have only the roads, the big grey sky and my daydreams for company. And if I'm in a town somewhere with several minutes to kill, I'll enjoy myself wandering about looking in the shop windows" (18.5). A little alone time, a little shopping—at least being a carer has its perks.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    Never Let Me Go can seem misleadingly simple. Our easy-going narrator, Kathy, talks to us like we're gossiping with her over tea and biscuits, which is fun and all. But the story as a whole tackles some of the toughest questions out there: What is the meaning of life? What's the point of going to school and trying to make a difference if we all die in the end? See what we mean? This book can get pretty deep. The thing is, Kathy's chatty style and her mysterious story can't help but make us want to read more. Sure, there are some dark moments that make you think, but the page-turning nature of the book means you won't get paralyzed by the deep stuff.

  • Writing Style

    Conversational, Piecemeal

    Kathy is the kind of narrator you might want to be friends with. She's nice and chatty and good grief does she have a story to tell. Sure, she doesn't always give us all the facts up front. Actually, she never gives us all the facts up front. Remember how she doesn't tell us what "donations" are until Chapter Seven? Oh, and then there's that time that she waits until halfway through the book to reveal that teensy little detail that she's a clone (12.10).

    But this is half the fun of chugging along with chatty Kathy's story: she's always giving her readers only one piece of the puzzle at a time. In fact, she casually changes the subject whenever she feels like it. Take, for example, this time when Kathy decides to stop talking about Miss Emily: "But that's not really what I want to talk about just now. What I want to do now is get a few things down about Ruth" (4.31). Kathy likes to pull one-eighties like this right smack dab in the middle of a chapter. All this storytelling swerving means we have the amusing and challenging task of putting the puzzle pieces of Kathy's story back together, with very little help from our girl.

    Kathy's talkative, piecemeal style also hands us another challenge: putting her memories into chronological order. Kathy can't seem to tell her story in a linear way (a.k.a. starting at the beginning and moving chronologically to the middle and then the end). Instead, she jumps between the present and the past, and hops between flashbacks at random intervals.

    Kathy gives us a good description of how her memories of Hailsham work: "The earlier years—the ones I've just been telling you about—they tend to blur into each other" (7.1). Well that's exactly what happens in Kathy's story, too. The memories blur into one another, and we sometimes have a hard time figuring out what's what.

    This storytelling rollercoaster is enough to make her readers dizzy. But have no fear; Shmoop is here. If the jumble of flashbacks has you wondering what happened when, then check out the timelines for Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. We've turned the mish-mashed story into a chronological one. No need to thank us… maybe.

  • Judy Bridgewater Cassette Tape

    Do you have an object that you've held onto since childhood? We sure do. Maybe yours is a stuffed animal, a blankie, or a meaningful toy. For Kathy, this special object is her Judy Bridgewater cassette tape, Songs After Dark. She loves this tape maybe more than she loves anything else in the entire book, including Tommy. Okay, maybe not.

    But why is this tape so important to Kathy? And what does it represent? There are oodles of reasons why Kathy cares so much for this cassette. Here are three possibilities, in Shmoop's eyes:

    Oh the Memories

    For starters, music has a super powerful relationship with memory. Sometimes just listening to a song can take us back to a different time and place. For Kathy, listening to Judy Bridgewater brings back two really important memories:

         (1) Her days at Hailsham, when she loved to listen to Judy Bridgewater while alone in her dorm room.
         (2) The time she and Tommy found the tape again while they were in Norfolk.

    Once Kathy has lost her friends and her childhood home, at least she still has the tape to remind her of the good old days.

    Lost and Found

    The sad fact is that Kathy's list of lost items is a long one: the tape, Hailsham, Ruth, and eventually Tommy. It's important that the Judy Bridgewater tape is the first thing to drop away. When the cassette goes missing at Hailsham, Kathy is definitely not a happy camper. Sadly, this first loss foreshadows the many other losses she'll have throughout the book.

    For most of the things and people Kathy loses, there seems to be no possibility of finding them again. The good news is that the Judy Bridgewater tape is the exception. When she finds the tape in Norfolk, Kathy is happy as a clam and feels like they've never been apart. Amid all the loss Kathy goes through, finding the tape again might be a reminder that even though something is lost, maybe just maybe it can still be found.

    BFFs

    In her real life, Kathy has super complicated friendships. There's almost always a misunderstanding or a squabble happening with Ruth and Tommy. In contrast, Judy Bridgewater may be the best friend around. When Kathy finds the tape again in Norfolk, she says it feels like she has an old pal back again: "Judy Bridgewater. My old friend. It's like she's never been away" (15.99). Aw, that's sweet. And strange.

    We could go on for ages about this tape. In fact, we do keep going on about it in "Brain Snacks," where you can see if Judy Bridgewater might exist in real life (spoiler alert: she doesn't). But now it's your turn. What else do you think the tape could represent?

  • Babies

    One of the most defining moments in Kathy's youth occurs when she's singing her favorite song, "Never Let Me Go," to the make-believe pillow-baby that she's cradling in her arms. It's a sweet moment, but it's also super sad. We find out that Kathy and others like her can't have babies. Plus, since they can't even get jobs outside being a carer, we're pretty sure they can't adopt babies either. In a sense, this pillow-baby is the only child Kathy will ever have. If babies might represent the ability to reproduce future generations, what does it say about Kathy and her friends that they never have this possibility?

    And hey, where are the babies at Hailsham? Kathy and her friends occasionally mention the time when they were in "Infants" at school, but it's not clear what exactly this means. We don't know where the Hailsham students were born. Actually, for that matter we don't know how they were born either—was it test tubes? surrogates? storks? And when do they first come to Hailsham?

    It's no surprise that this story gives us more questions than answers. Kathy sure does like to give a few details and then leave us wanting more. But there's also a chance that Kathy might not know where precisely she comes from. Since Hailsham liked to hide the truth from its students, maybe Kathy never got to find out how she became a baby herself, which, if you think about, is a pretty tough position to be in. Imagine never knowing anything about your origins. That would be quite the burden to bear.

  • Animal Imagery

    This novel is chock-full of animal imagery. Here are some of the creature and critter moments that stood out to Shmoop:

    • Tommy's childish elephant drawing in Miss Geraldine's class
    • The giraffes Kathy's friend Jackie makes at Hailsham
    • The way Kathy compares herself and her friends to spiders when they test to see if Madame is scared of them
    • Tommy's "imaginary animals" that he begins drawing at the Cottages. He works on these drawings for years, and brings some to Madame when he and Kathy request a deferral. Keep an eye out because Tommy's animal drawings keep popping up.

    A lot of this animal imagery relates to creativity and the imagination. Students at Hailsham repeatedly paint and sculpt animals. Kathy tells us that Tommy's adult animal drawings are especially imaginative and complex: "The first impression was like one you'd get if you took the back off a radio set: tiny canals, weaving tendons, miniature screws and wheels were all drawn with obsessive precision" (16.14). What do you think of these creative, mechanical animals?

    So we've got oodles of artistic animals in the book, but here's the funny thing: we never actually see any real animals. It's a subtle reminder of the divide that exists between humans and clones. In reality, they're no different. Clones are filled with organs, sinews, veins—all that jazz. And they clearly have souls. But they're being treated like animals, or even machines, who can be chopped up for parts whenever it's needed.

  • Driving

    There's just something about driving that feels like freedom. Just think about Thelma and Louise. Sure, for T+L it's about the freedom to drive off a cliff while celebrating the bonds of sisterhood (not something we recommend), but it's also a reminder that in the car, we can go wherever we darn well please.

    There are tons of ways in which driving goes hand in hand with freedom for Kathy and her friends. (Steer yourself to the "Freedom and Confinement" theme for more driving chitchat.) At Hailsham, the students can't drive yet (to be fair, they're too young for licenses), and they never ever have freedom to leave the school grounds. But things are completely different at the Cottages. There, being able to drive means the students can go on road trips whenever they want. They can see the outside world. Then when she's a carer, Kathy spends a ton of time driving to and from work and finds herself enjoying the time it gives her to reminisce.

    It's no coincidence that when Kathy and her friends are chatting about their ideal futures, a lot of their dream jobs have to do with driving. Even Kathy, who doesn't normally go in for the whole dream future thing, gets caught up in the freedom that would come with driving:

    Quite a few students wanted to be drivers of one sort or another, and often, when the conversation went this way, some veterans would begin comparing particular scenic routes they'd travelled, favourite roadside cafés, difficult roundabouts, that sort of thing. Today, of course, I'd be able to talk the lot of them under the table on those topics. Back then, though, I used to just listen, not saying a thing, drinking in their talk. Sometimes, if it was late, I'd close my eyes and nestle against the arm of a sofa—or of a boy, if it was during one of those brief phases I was officially "with" someone—and drift in and out of sleep, letting images of the roads move through my head. (12.23)

    So maybe Kathy does get her dream job in the end, since she spends so much time driving around as a carer. But it's still no dream life. And if cars are the way to freedom, we've got one big question for Kathy: why doesn't she just drive away and never come back?

  • Water Imagery

    Once you start looking, you'll see water imagery sprinkled all over this book:

    • Tommy's childhood fantasy that he was splish-splashing through water after making a football goal
    • The art gallery in Norfolk, which is filled with sea-themed paintings 
    • Ruth's dream that she was at Hailsham and the grounds were flooded
    • Tommy's image of two people in a river, trying to hold onto one another despite the strong current

    Can you find any more watery moments? It seems to us that this water imagery can go in at least two different directions. On the one hand, Tommy's fantasy of splashing through water is a type of celebration. Hooray H2O! But on the other hand, when Tommy imagines two people trapped in a raging river, water seems much more dangerous.

    Plus, then there's that stranded boat, stuck on the marsh with no water at all. While the presence of water can be both good and bad, what happens when the water goes missing? Well, for starters, things become pretty stagnant, at least for boats. And maybe that's just is. In many ways, water represents the ups and downs, and still times, too, that come with living, you know, a human life. Once you jump in that river, you can't help but ride it downstream, even if you do manage to get caught in a few eddies and pools along the way.

  • Art Galleries

    Were you as sad as we were to find out that Madame's Gallery doesn't exist? Huge bummer. The biggest. And were you as rattled as we were when Kathy and her friends went into the art gallery in Norfolk only to find out that Ruth's "possible" couldn't really be her original clone model? Super huge bummer.

    No matter which way you slice it, these two art galleries in Never Let Me Go definitely have some negative events attached to them.

    The first art gallery we learn about is Madame's supposed Gallery, where the Hailsham students believe she displays their best art. But in the end, we find out that this Gallery doesn't really exist. There was a time when Madame and Miss Emily would display the students' art to raise funds to support Hailsham, but that time is long gone. To boot, when Kathy and Tommy learn that the Gallery doesn't exist, they also learn there are no deferrals. Zilch. Many dreams have been dashed, to say the least.

    The second gallery is the one in Norfolk called "The Portway Studios." When Kathy, Ruth, Tommy, Chrissie, and Rodney are inside, they realize that Ruth's potential clone model just isn't the one: "But now, in that gallery, the woman was too close, much closer than we'd ever really wanted. And the more we heard her and looked at her, the less she seemed like Ruth. It was a feeling that grew among us almost tangibly, and I could tell that Ruth, absorbed in a picture on the other side of the room, was feeling it as much as anyone" (14.37). If we didn't know any better, we'd think art galleries were the most depressing places on earth. And hey, maybe they are for our characters.

    But the art galleries aren't only associated with bad news. They are also connected with possibilities. When Kathy and her friends are children, just the idea of Madame's Gallery gives them something to dream about—something to maybe even look forward to. True, these hopes and dreams are eventually dashed, and you might say it was cruel of the guardians to allow these dreams to exist in the first place. But for most of their lives, Kathy and her friends can enjoy the belief that their artwork has an impact outside of Hailsham's walls.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central Narrator)

    Kathy tells us her own story, so she's a first-person narrator. She looks back over her life from the perspective of her thirty-one-year-old self, and tries to remember all her most important experiences (and there are a lot).

    Kathy makes her first-person point of view clear from the first two sentences: "My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer now for over eleven years" (1.1). And our girl Kath keeps this perspective up with each trip down memory lane.

    For example, check out how Kathy reacts after Madame catches her listening to "Never Let Me Go": "When I got back to my friends a few minutes later, I didn't tell them anything about what had happened. […] What I wished more than anything was that the thing hadn't happened at all" (6.55). Kathy doesn't tell her friends anything about this incident for years. But because we're inside Kathy's perspective, we get the inside scoop on what really went down and how she really feels about it.

    There are some ups and downs to being so up-close-and-personal with Kathy's deepest darkest thoughts. The good news is that we get to know Kathy really well because we're always inside her head. The downside is that we don't get to see anything that Kathy doesn't see. So if you're curious about where the guardians sleep or what Ruth and Tommy talk about when no one is around, well, you're out of luck. Kathy's only human (well, you know, clone-human), so she doesn't get to read others' minds or be in multiple places at once.

    There's another downside to this first-person point of view: Kathy's memory loss. It's no secret that Kathy doesn't have perfect recall. (Go check out the "Memory and the Past" theme if you—dare we say it?—can't remember how bad Kathy's memory can be). She often admits that she might not remember everything accurately, or that another character remembers the same event differently.

    All this memory loss gets us wondering: Can we really trust Kathy to be a reliable narrator? She sure does seem a bit shaky on the details sometimes. And would this story have different facts if it were told by another character who might remember things differently? Shmoop's take? Definitely.