Study Guide

Never Let Me Go Themes

  • Friendship

    The friendships in Never Let Me Go sure are complicated, but they're also very realistic. In the novel, just like in real life, friends fight, make up, have misunderstandings, support one another, and accidentally or purposefully hurt each other's feelings. When she's younger, all these little tiffs get to Kathy. But as an adult Kathy looks past all that stuff. Her flashbacks about Ruth and Tommy show us the ups and downs of friendship, but they also remind us just how enduring friendships can be.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. What matters more to Kathy, her actual friends or her memories of friends? What about imaginary friends like Judy Bridgewater? 
    2. Are there ways Kathy is too dependent on her friends? Or too independent from her friends? What does the book suggest is the right balance? How can you tell?
    3. Is Kathy always a good friend? What about Tommy? Or Ruth? 
    4. How does Hailsham bring friends together? On the flipside, how does it tear friends apart?

    Chew on This

    Kathy depends on her friends and this is a very good thing. Without her friends, she has nothing left.

    Kathy can stand on her own two feet. She doesn't really need her friendships and the novel argues that it's better to be independent and alone.

  • Lies and Deceit

    You know how sometimes your parents or teachers lie to you to shield you from something they don't think you're ready to know? Remember how much you hated that as a kid? There's a mighty fine line between lying to someone and protecting them and Never Let Me Go plays with that line. This novel gives us two options: Team Miss Emily or Team Miss Lucy. You might agree with Miss Emily that ignorance is bliss. Or you might agree with Miss Lucy that it's better for the Hailsham students to know their fate. So which team are you on?

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Are the Hailsham guardians protecting the students by hiding their fate? Or are they lying to them? What is the difference?
    2. By the end of the book, do Kathy and Tommy think it's better to know the truth or be kept in the dark? How do you know?
    3. Does Kathy ever lie to herself? What about Ruth? Or Tommy? And is self-deception a good or a bad thing? What makes you say so?
    4. Does Kathy ever deceive her readers, or is she completely truthful? Can you be sure?

    Chew on This

    The novel supports Team Miss Emily. Lying is a necessary part of life, and the novel argues that lying to children is the best way to create and ensure happiness.

    The novel supports Team Miss Lucy. Lies are always wrong, so people should tell the truth no matter what. Then maybe the clones would have been able to fight back against their oppression.

  • Identity

    Ah, the dreaded question: who am I? We've all stared this one down in the wee small hours of the morning. But Kathy and her friends have another question to answer as well: what am I? Understanding what it means to be a clone is a big part of Kathy figuring out who she is. She needs to decide if her identity is connected with the person she was modeled from, or if that doesn't matter at all. Kathy spends a great deal of Never Let Me Go mulling over who she is and how she relates to normal humans. In the end, you'll have to decide if you think Kathy finds her identity or not.

    Questions About Identity

    1. In what ways is identity predetermined? Or is identity more about free will? Does the novel answer these questions? How might Kathy?
    2. What barriers keep Kathy and her friends from finding out who they really are? Are there ways for them to break down these barriers?
    3. What is the connection between a clone's identity and his or her original model? Why does Kathy think she'll understand her own identity better if she finds out who her model was?

    Chew on This

    Identity is entirely self-determined. Kathy needs to exercise her free will in order to understand who she really is.

    Identity is predetermined by biology. If Kathy doesn't find her original model, she'll never know who she really is.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Dreams can be dangerous. In Never Let Me Go, Kathy and her friends have shorter life spans than regular humans, so they have less time to accomplish their goals. Plus, their futures have already been planned out: they are all going to become carers, then donors, then complete. Yep, plenty depressing, to be sure. This doesn't leave much wiggle room to pursue dream jobs or go off on fantasy adventures. But all the same, no one can stop Kathy and her friends from having goals. They can daydream all they want. And if they plan it out right, they might be able to accomplish some of these dreams despite their gruesome fate.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. When Kathy thinks about the future, what does she dream about? What are her hopes and goals?
    2. Why does Ruth dream about working in an office? What about working in an office sounds so enticing?
    3. Are there any characters in the novel that don't have hopes and dreams? If so, who? And why do you think they don't?

    Chew on This

    It's good to have dreams. Even if they turn out to be impossible, dreams help keep Kathy and her friends going when times get rough.

    Dreams only lead to delusions. Kathy and her friends need to face the facts and avoid the fantasies. They'll save themselves some disappointment.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Some gates are designed to keep people in; others are designed to keep people out. In Never Let Me Go, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. Fences pop up all over the novel, but it's not always clear if these gates

    (a) protect the clones from the outside world
    (b) keep the clones from leaving, or
    (c) all the above.

    When they're younger, Kathy and her friends can't leave Hailsham's safe bubble world. So there the gates go with option C. Yet as they get older, Kathy and her chums gain more freedom. They can drive, take road trips, and have mini-adventures. But even with the extra freedom, Kathy and her friends learn that sometimes there are barriers that you just can't see.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. What kind of barriers fence in the students at Hailsham? What about at the Cottages? Are there physical barricades as well as social ones? What about psychological barriers?
    2. Where is the line between protection and confinement? 
    3. In what ways do the characters exercise freedom? How do they have physical freedom? What about psychological freedom?
    4. How does storytelling relate to freedom? Do stories enable freedom or do they create barriers?

    Chew on This

    Kathy and the other clones need to be protected from the outside world. If they have less freedom, it's for their own good.

    The key to freedom is seizing it. Kathy and her friends could be free if they only had the guts to run away.

  • Memory and the Past

    If one thing is clear in Never Let Me Go, it's that Kathy is obsessed with the past: with Hailsham, her erstwhile friends, her old cassette tape, all of it. In fact, she's so into her past experiences that she barely tells us anything about her present life. Instead, almost the entire novel is a series of flashbacks. But why is it so important for Kathy to look back over her life? Well, for one thing, all of her old friends are gone, so they exist only in her memory. Looking backwards is one way Kathy can cope with all the things she's lost over the years.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. What's the difference between remembering the past and living in it? What side of the divide does Kathy fall on?
    2. How do Kathy's reminiscences affect the way she deals with the present? 
    3. Is Kathy more concerned with her memories than she is about her future? Or are the future and her memories somehow linked?
    4. How do shared memories work in the novel? Can shared memories bring people together? Or do shared memories only serve to point out how we all remember the same event differently?

    Chew on This

    Memories give Kathy power. Reminiscing about her past is the only way Kathy can deal with her present and look forward to her future.

    Memories are Kathy's downfall. Kathy avoids really facing her present and future life by completely living in the past.

  • Art and Culture

    In Never Let Me Go, the equation goes like this: being creative = being human. You can't have one without the other. It might sound harsh, but not everyone believes that clones like Kathy count as "human." So Miss Emily and Madame use art to prove that Hailsham students have souls just like the rest of us. This means that it's super important for the students at Hailsham to produce good artwork. Even though they don't know it, their status as "human" is at stake with each poem they write and painting they create. Sheesh, talk about pressure.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Does the novel represent different forms of art (like poetry, drawing, painting, sculpture) as equally valuable? What makes them valuable?
    2. What enables Tommy to be creative later in his life when he struggled so much at Hailsham? And how does his art change over time?
    3. Why is so much of the students' artwork centered on animals?

    Chew on This

    In the end, the students' art is meaningless. So maybe they should've never bothered creating art in the first place.

    Art is valuable even if no one ever sees it. The novel argues that creating art helps you to become more uniquely you.

  • Passivity

    Were you as bummed as we were that Kathy and her friends never even thought about escaping? But, alas, the clone rebellion never happens. Instead, Kathy and her friends submit to their fate without much hullabaloo. In some ways, the clones are pretty passive characters. They never really fight against the system or try to find a job that, you know, doesn't involve giving away vital organs. While this might seem sad and frustrating, Never Let Me Go also connects submission with fulfillment and even happiness. Kathy and her friends take pleasure out of doing their job (a.k.a. donating body parts) well. They know they are going to "complete" one day, and they are okay with that. Because frankly, everyone completes, sooner or later.

    Questions About Passivity

    1. Why don't Kathy and her fellow clones try to change their fate? Why don't they ever even consider escaping?
    2. Would you call Kathy a passive character? If not, how is she an active character? 
    3. Which characters show the least apathy? Which characters show the most? 
    4. Is there a difference between accepting your fate and giving up?

    Chew on This

    Mortality is inevitable. There's no point in fighting against it, so Kathy and her friends should accept their fate just like every human must do.

    The novel suggests that Kathy and her friends should have tried harder to change their fate. Or at least they should have considered the possibility of escape.