59 pages 1 hour read

Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2005

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Summary and Study Guide


Never Let Me Go is a 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro set in an alternative dystopian version of Great Britain in the 1990s in which cloning technology allows for the mass proliferation of organ donation. Medical problems like cancer are cured because organs are harvested from clones through a state-sanctioned program. The cloned “donors” have their organs taken one at a time until they die. The novel is narrated by Kathy, a clone who works as a “carer” for donors across the country, as she looks back at her upbringing and friendships. Never Let Me Go was made into a film in 2010 and won numerous awards.

Plot Summary

Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy attend a boarding school named Hailsham. Kathy, a quiet girl, meets the more temperamental, assertive Ruth. They play games and invent mysteries and conspiracies, though this inventiveness occasionally annoys Kathy. Tommy, also in their year, struggles to control his anger and is often a victim of bullying. Kathy is one of the few people who reaches out to Tommy, and they develop a close bond. Another is a member of the staff, Miss Lucy, who helps Tommy stop worrying about his apparent lack of artistic talent. The students are vaguely aware of the concept of donations, but the staff protect them from the realities of their futures. Only Miss Lucy believes that the children should be fully informed about their purpose in life.

Kathy and Tommy develop a theory that the art they produce is tied to the donations. The art is collected by a stern woman named Madame and taken away to the Gallery. Kathy acquires an old cassette tape and becomes obsessed with a song titled “Never Let Me Go.” One day, Madame catches Kathy dancing to the song in her dorm and cries. Kathy sees Madame but does not understand why she is crying. When the students are teenagers, Ruth and Tommy begin to date. They fight occasionally and break up, but Tommy is more upset by the unexpected departure of Miss Lucy and wonders whether she was right to tell him to ignore his artistic side. He reunites with Ruth, and all three graduate from Hailsham.

In Part 2, the characters move to the Cottages. Older residents from other schools around the country are already there, and many of them are in couples. The other residents treat Hailsham with fascination, and Ruth enjoys the attention and privilege that this attention suggests. Chrissie and Rodney are a couple who are particularly interested in Hailsham. They take Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy to a seaside town in Norfolk on the pretense of seeing Ruth’s “possible,” the woman from whom Ruth is cloned. The actual purpose of the trip is for the older couple to ask the Hailsham students about the possibility of a deferral from organ donation for a couple who are in love. Ruth pretends to be aware of deferrals, but Kathy and Tommy are confused. They eventually find the possible, but the woman is not a match. Ruth and Tommy fight, so Tommy and Kathy explore the town and find a copy of the same cassette Kathy loved as a girl but has since lost.

At the Cottages, Ruth becomes embittered by the time in Norfolk. Tommy and Kathy become close; he reveals that he has started to draw in the hope that he might one day show that he is worthy of a deferral. Kathy is puzzled by his drawings of imaginary animals. Kathy’s relationship with Ruth becomes tense. Ruth knows that Kathy loves Tommy but convinces Kathy that Tommy does not see her that way. They have a falling out, and Kathy leaves the Cottages soon after to become a carer.

Kathy spends years as a carer. She eventually becomes Ruth’s carer, and they begin to repair their relationship. One day they take a trip, and Tommy accompanies them. On the trip, Ruth apologizes for her behavior and tells Kathy and Tommy to seek a deferral as a couple. She gives them Madame’s address. Ruth dies a short time later, and Kathy becomes Tommy’s carer as they prepare to seek a deferral. They begin a relationship and have sex.

Tommy and Kathy find Madame’s address. They are welcomed into the house, where Madame and the headmistress of Hailsham, Miss Emily, explain that deferrals do not exist. Hailsham was an experiment to test whether clones could be considered human. The experiment was a failure, and the school closed. On the way home, Tommy runs into a dark field and screams into the night. Kathy comforts him. Their relationship becomes cold, and then Tommy makes his final donation and dies. Afterward, Kathy thinks about her friend and the donations she will soon begin to make. 

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