Empathy in Kazuo Ishiguro´s “Never Let Me Go”

Term Paper, 2014

17 Pages, Grade: 1,7

Marc Felsbrecher (Author)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction: The Role of Clones in “Never Let Me Go“

2. The Use of Empathy in “Never Let Me Go”

3. The Significance of Hailsham Education

4. Conclusion: Reading with Empathy


1. Introduction: The Role of Clones in “Never Let Me Go“

The dystopian science fiction novel “Never Let Me Go“ by the Japanese-born author Kazuo Ishiguro is set in a counterfactual England at the end of the twentieth century. The novel was first published in 2005 and subsequently shortlisted for several critic awards and book prizes. A film adaptation directed by Mark Romanek was premiered in 2010.

In Kazuo Ishiguro´s dystopia “Never Let Me Go” human clones are raised in boarding schools separated from British society for the purpose of providing a ready supply of human organs for donation. Before the clones have to start donating their organs they act as “carers” nursing the clones that have already had to become “donors” in special rehab centers. Eventually every clone in “Never Let Me Go” “completes”, which is the euphemistic term for death caused by multiple organ donations. Nevertheless, the world portrayed in “Never Let Me Go” strongly resembles our present environment since no technical advancements or changes in society apart from the existence of clones planned to provide human organs are to be noticed.

The protagonist and first-person narrator of the novel is Kathy H., a clone who is thirty-one years old and reflects back on her life. She is a graduate of the boarding school of “Hailsham” which, compared to other schools for clones, is considered a rather exquisite educational institution. In the course of the narrative the reader gets to know the story of her life and that of her close friends Tommy and Ruth. Eventually Tommy and Ruth die earlier than the narrator because of the organ donations they have been designated to make.

Kazuo Ishiguro´s novel “Never Let Me Go” stands in the tradition of other famous dystopian science fiction novels such as “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley (1932) or “1984” by George Orwell (1949). Especially when it comes to cloning and genetic engineering one feels strongly reminded of Huxley´s well-known dystopia “Brave New World”. However, there are obvious differences between the role of cloning in “Brave New World” and in Kazuo Ishiguro´s “Never Let Me Go”. In “Brave New World”, all humans are artificially “created” in laboratories and genetically modified according to the needs of society. In Huxley´s dystopia, there are so-called “Alpha”, “Beta”, “Gamma”, “Delta” and “Epsilon” types of humans that are created genetically different. In Huxley´s dystopian society, the Epsilons are regarded as the lowest “caste” and have to perform easy, undemanding tasks whereas the Alphas are supposed to be the highest class, holding the prestigious positions in society. It is evident that genetic engineering is crucial in “Brave New World” since it is the main mechanism apart from conditioning that keeps Huxley´s dystopian society from failing. Without genetic alteration, which also includes the reduction of the brain capacity of the lower caste humans, the dystopian world of Aldous Huxley could not function properly since there would be no people willing to do the unpretentious work of Epsilons. Additionally, lower caste humans with a fully functional brain would start questioning the system and possibly start to protest against it. In George Orwell´s dystopia “1984”, on the other hand, there is oppressive federal surveillance that stabilizes the system.

In “Never Let Me Go” there is no federal surveillance, genetic alteration or conditioning to be witnessed. However, it has to be noted that the clones in Ishiguro´s novel are not able to reproduce by themselves which shows that their bodies must have been modified in a certain way but, nevertheless, it is clear that the clones in Kazuo Ishiguro´s “Never Let Me Go” are fully functioning human beings that are intelligent, capable of feeling, loving and producing art.

When it comes to characterizing the dystopian world in Kazuo Ishiguro´s “Never Let Me Go” with special regard to the life of clones therein, Shameem Black says:

“In many respects, the alternative late-twentieth-century reality of “Never Let Me Go” reflects a world that the antihumanist modernists would have recognized. The lives of the genetically-engineered students seem fundamentally automatic and mechanized: They move through the stages of their lives with the regularity of students promoted from grade to grade, seemingly blind to the horrors that shadow their march toward suffering and death. Any protest against this system of values, conscious or unconscious, is met with ridicule by their peers, who do as much as the barely registered system of teachers and doctors to maintain their status as machines without the capacity to resist their own exploitation. This vision provides one logical extreme of the twentieth century obsession with challenges to the definition of the human” (788).

The question that arises in this context is why the clones in Ishiguro´s dystopia never start to question a system that exploits them physically and emotionally and eventually leads to their certain death. In an online criticism of “Never Let Me Go” a reviewer called “Stephen” expresses his frustration about this circumstance when writing:

“There is never a sense that any of the characters are struggling with the dead-serious issues that make life worth living; they are herded from stage to stage like cattle, mooing articulately and chewing their cuds with a vague sense of malaise, but never actually taking their lives in hand. Their own impending fates don't seem to mobilize them into action, or concentrate their minds at all” (Stephen Web).

Obviously, in contrast to “Brave New World” or “1984” there are no mechanisms such as oppressive surveillance, genetic manipulation, conditioning or the use of force present that could explain the mindset of the clones in “Never Let Me Go”. Therefore, it seems rather odd that the clones of Hailsham do not protest against the inhumane system of values they encounter, especially since they are educated and able to move across the whole country freely. The reality in “Never Let Me Go” is even quite the contrary: The clones seem to indentify with the system that exploits them and any protest against the system is even met with criticism and ridicule by the clones themselves (cf. Black 788). This mindset of absolute approval is, for instance, exhibited when Ruth, who is one of the main characters of the novel, is scheduled for a donation. Shortly before surgery she states:

“I was pretty much ready when I became a donor. It felt right. After all, it is what we are supposed to be doing, isn´t it?” (Ishiguro 227).

Another example of the unconditional approval of the inhumane system by the clones themselves is the obvious pride of the first-person narrator when she describes that she is a good “carer” right at the beginning of her narrative (Ishiguro 3f.). It is evident that the clones would never dissent from their fate. On the contrary, they are even proud when fulfilling their position in society well. Apart from the work of doctors and teachers, the main thing that keeps the system from failing are, therefore, the moral values that the clones share.

The novel of Kazuo Ishiguro begins with the following words:

“My name is Kathy. I´m thirty-one years old and I´ve been a carer for over eleven years. This sounds long I know but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year” (3).

Apart from Kathy´s pride when referring to herself as a “carer”, there is another aspect noticeable in these first lines of the narrative. The author uses the device of an internal addressee in his novel, making the narrator tell her story to an intended listener from a first person´s point of view (cf. Whitehead 73). Because of this stylistic means, the reader starts to question his own attitude to Ishiguro´s dystopian society, asking himself whether Kathy is telling her story to an emphatic listener in “her world” or whether she is trying to communicate with a world “outside the dystopia”, hence speaking to the reader directly. However, by the author using this style of writing the reader feels addressed by the narrator directly and is connected with the clones and the proceedings in “Never Let Me Go” personally. Additionally, the reader is forced to see the dystopian world from Kathy´s perspective, directly facing her feelings and sorrows, thereby encountering the mindset of a typical clone in “Never Let Me Go” (cf. Whitehead 70). This “personal link” to Kathy, her friends and their fate creates empathy with the clones in the reader.

The aim of this essay is to examine the role of empathy in Kazuo Ishiguro´s “Never Let Me Go” with special regard to the “teaching” of empathy at the boarding school of Hailsham. As already stated, it is important for the functioning of the dystopian society of Kazuo Ishiguro that the clones develop empathy since they are not only meant to supply organs for donation but also meant to comfort other clones in the rehab centers before becoming donors themselves. Nevertheless, the clones in Ishiguro´s novel would never dissent from their cruel fate. On the contrary, they are even proud to fulfill their function in society. As already said, the main factors that keep the dystopian system from failing are, apart from a barely noticeable system of doctors and teachers that manage the exploitation of the clones, the mindset and the workings of the clones themselves. This circumstance seems odd, at least at first sight. Typically, the clones in “Never Let Me Go” are emphatic, loving and caring on the one hand, but on the other hand they are unable to realize the inhumanity and injustice of a perverted system that to a great extent they support by their own work. This essay will examine the role of the educational system in “Never Let Me Go” in order to characterize forms of teaching, education and upbringing that lead to the typical characteristics of the clones.

Before dealing with the importance of the educational system for preserving public order in the dystopian world, general functions and modes of empathy in fictional writing will be discussed in an introductory part. In a conclusive part there will be argued that Kazuo Ishiguro uses a narrative style that persuades the reader to “feel with” the protagonists. By doing so the reader is led to judge the society of the dystopian world to be cruel and undesirable.

2. The Use of Empathy in “Never Let Me Go”

It is evident that Kazuo Ishiguro uses a narrative style that persuades the reader to empathize with the protagonists Kathy, Ruth and Tommy. The following part will discuss the usage of empathy in “Never Let Me Go” and fictional writing in general, also referring to its effect on the reader.

Firstly, it has to be noted that there is terminological disagreement when it comes to defining the expressions empathy or emphatic writing. There are numerous descriptions and definitions of the terms throughout all periods of time and related to different fields of application. In this respect Noel Carroll states:

“For some, the object of empathy is a person; for others, a situation. Sometimes empathy only seems to pertain to simply understanding another person´s viewpoint which, of course, is possible without feeling anything. According to other authorities, feelings are requisite, although which feelings vary. So, some regard empathy as especially cognitive, some treat it as essentially affective, and, in addition, others think it is a mixture of cognitive and affective elements” (163).

The following analysis of “Never Let Me Go” will use the term empathy to describe the process of “feeling with” or “feeling into” another person. Obviously, feelings are regarded as requisite for the process. Empathy will be assumed to have a cognitive and an affective dimension. However, the way in which empathy is processed in the individual is not essential for the analysis since only the practical implementation of empathy in reading and writing will be considered.

It is crucial for the concept of empathy that it implies feeling the other person´s emotions yourself. Hence, empathy is not only “feeling with” someone else, it can rather be described as the spontaneous sharing of emotions - literally feeling the other person´s pain, joy, hatred or sorrow - even by only reading about it (cf. Keen 4). In this context, it is necessary to distinguish empathy from sympathy. A fitting definition for the two terms, also underlining their difference, is given by Suzanne Keen:

“Empathy, a vicarious, spontaneous sharing of affect, can be provoked by witnessing another´s emotional state, by hearing about another´s condition, or even by reading. It does not need to be a conscious response: The neonates who cry at the sound of other babies´ cries are almost certainly unaware of their primitive empathy. […] In empathy, sometimes described as an emotion in its own right, we feel what we believe to be the emotions of others. This phenomenon is distinguished, in both psychology and philosophy, […] from sympathy, in which feelings for another occur” (4).

Practically this means that empathy is, for instance, feeling the pain of another individual yourself whereas sympathy, in this case, would be about feeling pity for the pain of this other person, hence having a supportive emotion about the other´s feelings but not having the sentiments yourself (cf. Keen 5). Noel Carroll describes the requirements for a fictional character that feeling sympathy for is possible as follows:

“In order for us to feel sympathy for a fictional character, we must find the character worthy of our emotions. There must be some reason grounding our wishes that they fare well. But how will the maker of popular fictions motivate large audiences with often vastly variegated and sometimes even conflicting real-world interests to get behind the protagonists? As an empirical generalization, my conjecture is that the most frequent solution by far to this design problem is to and the other characters intended to warrant our concern in such a way that we perceive them as, broadly speaking, morally good” (174).

It is evident that the design of the clones in Kazuo Ishiguro´s dystopia perfectly applies to this model of “morally good” people. Especially the narrator, Kathy H., is a person that one would characterize as pleasant, polite and attentive. Furthermore, the clones in “Never Let Me Go” generally share a caring character that is, for instance, perfectly exhibited when they are nursing and comforting the clones that have already donated organs in the rehab centers. Thus it is easy for the reader to feel sympathy for the clones in “Never Let Me Go” even though the real-world surroundings of the reader and the fictional characters of Kazuo Ishiguro are obviously very different.

Sympathy, however, can be understood as requisite for empathy since it is necessary to feel with another person in order to then, in a further step, feel into the counterpart (cf. Coplan, Goldie xv). If the reader is not able to feel sympathy for a fictional character he will not be able to use empathy either since, as Noel Carroll puts it, the fictional character will then not be regarded as “worthy of our emotions”, not considered to be “morally good” enough to empathize with in the sense of the reader. Of course it is necessary to gain an understanding of the character´s behaviour, value system and mindset first to then be able to grasp his/her feelings. Empathizing with a fictional character in a novel is, therefore, a step beyond having a feeling of sympathy for him/her.

According to Noel Carroll, another major factor in being able to empathize with a fictional character is identification. Carroll states that it is crucial for the reader to be able to put himself “in the place of the character” (165). That a reader puts himself in the character´s shoes is, in Carroll`s understanding, rather a projection of the reader into the fictional character than a sharing of the fictional character´s feelings (cf. Carroll 166). According to Noel Carroll, the reader rather projects his own personality and value system into the fictional character than adopting the character´s mindset. This sort of empathy could thus be called “self-based” since the feelings that occur in the reader are based on the reader´s own views and norms rather than on the value system that the fictional character in the novel might base his emotions on (cf. Coplan, Goldie xxxiv). In this case the feelings of the person empathized with and the feelings of the person empathizing would not necessarily be the same due to the different value systems they use as a foundation of their emotions.

Consequently, there is a concept of other-based empathy opposed to the outlined concept of self-based empathy (cf. Coplan, Goldie xxxiv): Other-based empathy occurs if the reader adopts the mindset of the fictional character to then share his feelings. This form of empathy can certainly be considered to be more “precise” because the person empathized with and the person empathizing would, at least theoretically, share just the same emotions. However, it is obvious that while reading it would hardly be possible for the reader to copy the whole mindset of a fictional character, including all attitudes, values and norms, because it would be a much too complex task for the reader to transfer the complete value system of another person to his own. This is due to the fact that the value system of another person is the outcome of a lifetime experience, including upbringing, socialization and education. The result of such a vast number of different experiences can clearly not be “moved” from one person to another by simply reading about it. The views and opinions of a fictional character might also interrelate with a fictional world, such as the dystopian society of “Never Let Me Go”, which makes it even harder for the reader to put himself in the character´s shoes. Additionally, it also depends on the reader´s own abilities to which extent empathy for a fictional character in a novel is possible. Obviously a reader with a high emotional competence would find it easier to conclude what a person with an unfamiliar mindset might feel.


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Empathy in Kazuo Ishiguro´s “Never Let Me Go”
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Kazuo Ishiguro, Never let me go, Empathy, literary analysis, teaching empathy, teaching, hailsham school
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Marc Felsbrecher (Author), 2014, Empathy in Kazuo Ishiguro´s “Never Let Me Go”, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/307097


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